Matt Fitzgerald

On June 6, 2021, Sifan Hassan of The Netherlands smashed the women’s 10,000-meter world record in the Dutch town of Hengelo, besting Ethiopian Almaz Ayana’s mark of 29:17.45 by more than 10 seconds. Two days later, the Ethiopian Olympic Trials Women’s 10,000m was held on the same track. Nobody expected the record to go down again, least of all because the fastest runner in the race, Letesenbet Gidey, had a PB of 30:21—a full 75 seconds slower than Hassan’s time. Nevertheless, those fancy blue Wavelight LED’s that show world-record pace were activated, just in case.

Gidey started fast, but not that fast, reaching 2000 meters in 5:54, about 5 seconds behind the lights. Her next kilometer was a mite quicker, though still slower than record tempo, leaving her another second off the mark after 7.5 laps. She held that pace through the halfway mark, hitting 5000 meters in 14:42, on pace to finish in 29:24, a virtual straightway behind the specter of Hassan. But she looked really good—about as relaxed and comfortable as she had during her earlier warm-up jog.

Gidey’s next two kilometers were her swiftest yet—each completed in 2:55—yet even this pace was fractionally slower than Hassan’s standard, leaving her fully 10 seconds behind the lights at 7K. That’s when Gidey began to accelerate, running each remaining lap faster than the one before. She covered the final 1600 meters in an astonishing 4:26, the bell lap in a brain-melting 63 seconds, and finished with a new world record of 29:01.03. Her time for the second half of the race—14:18—was the eighth fastest women’s 5000-meter time ever run!
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What do we make of this performance? For me, it teaches an important lesson about pacing. Specifically, it shows that a conservative pacing strategy can also be an aggressive pacing strategy in the sense that running the first part of a race at a relatively slow pace can position an athlete to achieve a breakthrough performance for the full race distance. The reason has to do with the psychological nature of pacing and human performance limits.

You see, in sprint races, performance is directly limited by physiology (specifically, leg turnover and force application). But in middle- and long-distance running events, performance is merely constrained by physiology and is directly limited by psychology. In a properly-paced middle- or long-distance race, the runner does not encounter any kind of hard physiological limit until they are within about 30 seconds of finishing, as it is humanly impossible to sustain a maximal effort longer than half a minute, give or take. Prior to that time, the runner is deliberately running slower than she could, aiming for the fastest pace she can sustain without hitting her bodily limit before she’s within 30 seconds of crossing the finish line.

This calculated parceling of effort is done mainly by feel. Hence, a degree of uncertainty is involved in pacing. How can a runner be certain she’s riding the line, on track to complete the race in the exact least time possible for her on that day? She can’t. However, uncertainty does tend to decrease as the race unfolds. The closer the runner gets to finishing, the more confident she becomes in her pacing judgments. Shorter races are easier to pace than longer ones, after all, and longer races effectively become shorter ones as runners move through them.

Pacing is really all about belief. When a runner is certain her current effort is sustainable for the remaining distance of a race, she’s usually right, and when she’s certain it’s not, she’s also right, not for some hippie-dippy mystical reason but because such beliefs have a solid basis in perceived effort, conscious knowledge of the situation, and past experience. But because belief is not strictly tied to physiology, runners can manipulate belief independent of physiology in ways that enable them to race faster, and that’s exactly what Letesenbet Gidey did in her-record-breaking 10,000 meters.

In particular, Gidey ran the first 7K of the race at a pace that was slow enough to leave her feeling relatively good but not so slow as to put the world record out of reach. At that point, confident she could speed up, she did, but only a little, such that, after completing another lap, Gidey felt confident she could speed up a little more, which she did, and so on. The materialists in the room are rolling their eyes at this, but is my theory really so far-fetched? We have all kinds of experimental evidence that purely psychological factors affect pacing and performance. Endurance athletes are known to race faster when they are in a group, when they have a higher level of motivation before the race, and when they set a goal they believe is achievable, but just barely. The Gidey method of pacing is just one more way of improving performance through psychological self-manipulation.

I’m not suggesting that the Gidey method is the optimal pacing strategy for every runner in every race, though I push back hard against the claim that Gidey achieved what she did despite her pacing, not because of it. Folks, she covered 10,000 meters 5 seconds faster than any woman in the history of the world! How could that possibly have come about as a result of screwing up? I humbly ask you to consider experimenting with an aggressively conservative pacing strategy in an upcoming race. Here’s an example of a Gidey-style pacing plan for a runner hoping to squeak under 40:00 in a flat road 10K:

1K – 4:06
2K – 4:05 (8:11)
3K – 4:05 (12:16)
4K – 4:04 (16:20)
5K – 4:02 (20:22)
6K – 3:59 (24:21)
7K – 3:58 (28:19)
8K – 3:56 (32:15)
9K – 3:54 (36:09)
10K – 3:50 (39:59)

One of three things will happen if you try this experiment: 1) You will mess it up and decide either to try again or not to, 2) you will execute the plan well but decide you could have gone faster with a more traditional pacing strategy, or 3) you will execute the plan well and achieve a breakthrough performance you’re so proud of, you name your next pet Letesenbet. One thing that I can guarantee will NOT happen if you try this experiment is that you spontaneously combust and never run again. So, try it!

Interested in learning more about the art and science of pacing? Read my new book, ON PACE: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit, or read a free sample chapter.

James Spragg is a young South African exercise physiologist who has carved out an interesting niche for his research. It is based on the idea that the fastest athlete on fresh legs is not necessarily the fastest athlete on fatigued legs, which is an important distinction, as in most endurance races, it is better to be the guy or gal who is fastest on fatigued legs. Yet conventional fitness testing protocols ignore this reality, which is a problem, because it has the potential to skew athletes’ training too far in the direction of improving fresh-legged performance.

In one of his early studies, Spragg teamed up with several other researchers, including Iñigo Mujika, whose name you might recognize from his work related to the 80/20 intensity balance, to compare power profiles in nine members of a U23 cycling team and five professional cyclists. Interestingly, they found that the U23 riders were able to generate as much power as the pros on fresh legs. Had this experiment been limited to non-fatigued performance testing, we would have been left to wonder why the U23 cyclists were not also on professional teams. But what Spragg and his collaborators also found was that, in U23 cyclists, achievable power outputs began to decline after 1,500 to 2,000 kilojoules (about 3,600 to 4,800 calories) of prior work was completed, whereas in professional cyclists, performance fell off only after 3,000 kJ of pedaling.

What’s more, a later study by Dutch and South African researchers found that, among top-tier professional cyclists, those able to do the most work before their power output capacity dropped off performed best in races. So, it appears that the ability to ride fast on tired legs is a key factor separating the best from the rest, both between and within echelons of cycling.

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Spragg’s recent study is also his most ambitious to date. It involved collecting power data from every training ride and race completed by 30 U23 professional cyclists over three years. The aim was to determine how individual cyclists’ fresh and fatigued power profiles changed over the course of a competitive season and how these changes related to their training. The main findings were as follows:

  • Fresh power profiles remained relatively stable throughout the season.
  • Fatigued power profiles changed over the course of the season.
  • The difference between fresh and fatigued power profiles also varied as the season unfolded, indicating that the two phenomena are independent.
  • More time spent at low intensity in training predicted better 2-minute power on both fresh and fatigued legs.
  • A shift away from moderate intensity toward high intensity was associated with a stronger fatigued power profile (i.e., a smaller delta between fresh and fatigued power)

An important implication of these findings is that, depending on the type of event an athlete is training for, performing fitness testing in a fresh state may be of limited value. If you specialize in the 400m freestyle event or the 1500m track event, then perhaps testing in a fresh state has greater relevance. But if you’re training for a marathon or an Ironman 70.3, I would imagine that fatigued fitness testing would tell you more. In a narrative review published in October 2021, Spragg, Mujika, and three other colleagues provide detailed recommendations for incorporating fitness testing into training for road cycling events, one of which is to “avoid single effort prediction trials, such as functional threshold power.” As a running and triathlon coach, I personally lean toward using regular workouts to assess fitness. For example, tacking a fast finish onto the end of a long run serves as a good measure of fatigued performance capacity in a marathoner while also functioning as a relevant fitness-builder for the marathon.

Another interesting finding from Spragg’s 2022 study is that cyclists who maintained their peak training load through the late season also maintained their fatigue resistance, whereas those who reduced their training load during this period lost fatigue resistance. This finding is consistent with other studies reporting a correlation between training volume and fatigue resistance/endurance. One example is a 2020 study byThorsten Emig of Paris-Saclay University and Jussi Peltonen of the Polar Corporation, who collected and analyzed training and racing data from devices worn by more than 14,000 runners for a combined 1.6 million exercise sessions. For the purposes of this experiment, endurance was defined as the percentage of VO2max running velocity that a runner could sustain for one hour, and the data showed a strong positive correlation between training volume and endurance thus defined.

I wish all of this science had been available when I wrote 80/20 Running back in 2014. It would have bolstered the argument I made therein about how the typical exercise science study design puts a thumb on the scale in favor of HIIT-focused training when compared against the type of training elite endurance athletes do. It’s less of a problem nowadays, but back then it was common to use fresh-legged VO2max tests as the basis for such comparisons. But we now know that a VO2max test performed after extensive prior exercise is likely to yield different results that are more relevant to real-world race performance, and that high-volume, mostly low-intensity yields better results in pre-fatigued fitness tests.

Oh, well. That’s what second editions are for, right? In the meantime, you can check out our cycling plans here – some are built to improve your FTP and can be used in your off season.

A few weeks ago, I invited readers of this blog to participate in what I chose to call the 80/20 Endurance Pacing Challenge. Here are the instructions I gave:

First, determine your average pace per mile or per kilometer in your last half marathon. Next, go for a run. After warming up, run one mile or one kilometer at half-marathon effort, aiming to nail your exact average pace from your last half-marathon without looking at your watch. Note your actual time, then send your results to me.

To my delight, many of you accepted this challenge and bravely shared your results with me. I say “bravely” because, frankly, the overall results weren’t very good. One athlete did hit their target pace on the nose, but the rest missed the mark, with most missing it by a large margin. The average discrepancy between target and actual times was 14.2 seconds per mile (8.8 seconds per kilometer), with almost everyone missing on the low side (i.e., running too fast).

Speaking from vast experience, I can assure that the most skillful pacers who took this same challenge would never miss their target by so wide a margin, not in a thousand attempts. This is important, because although runners are allowed to look at their watches when racing, external devices are of limited use with respect to the goal of getting to the finish line in the least time possible. I define pacing as the art of finding your limit, and the runners who do this most successfully in competition are the same runners who hit their target time almost exactly when doing the 80/20 Endurance Pacing Challenge.

Let me give you a personal example of why this is so. In 2009, I started the Silicon Valley Marathon with the goal of breaking 2:40:00. Keying off my watch, I ran the first several miles at my target pace of 6:05 per mile, but I didn’t feel as comfortable as I should have, and by 10K I knew the pace would not be sustainable for another 20 miles. So I backed off to a pace that did feel sustainable, which hovered around 6:15 per mile for the next dozen-plus miles. But with about 5 miles left in the race, I caught a second wind, and I went with it, accelerating enough to cross the finish line at 2:41:29, having averaged 6:09 per mile for the full distance. While this was shy of my goal, it was the best I was capable of that day, and there’s no way in hell I would have achieved it had I depended entirely on my watch to regulate my pacing.

So, we’ve established that pacing really matters and that most runners suck at pacing. The question, then, is how do runners develop this vital skill? The first step is intentionality. Most runners who suck at pacing just sort of vaguely hope they get better at it over time. While pacing skill does tend to improve automatically as running experience accrues, it improves much faster in those who make a conscious commitment to getting better at pacing. The nice thing about this commitment is that there’s no need to carve out extra time to practice the skill. All of the methods I use with the athletes I coach and describe in my new book, ON PACE: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit, can be incorporated into the training you’re already doing.

Pacing skill is supported by three key faculties: body awareness, judgment, and toughness. Body awareness is needed to properly interpret the perceptions of movement, time, and effort you experience when running, so you can find your limit. Judgment is needed to make the right pacing decisions (speed up? slow down? hold steady?) as you make your way through a race. And toughness is needed to push back the limit that you seek in practicing the art of pacing.

Stretch Intervals

I don’t want to give too much away here, but I will give you one example of a specific method that is useful in cultivating one of these three key faculties. I call this method stretch intervals, and they help improve body awareness. Here’s how I describe them in ON PACE:

This pacing challenge is made up of intervals of a uniform duration in which you aim to cover slightly more distance each time. For example, you might run 10 × 30 seconds uphill, completing the last rep at maximal effort and each preceding rep just a hair slower. The challenge here is to run the first rep at a high effort level that leaves just enough space for nine subsequent increases in speed. To execute this type of workout properly, you will need some way of marking the endpoint of each interval. I like to use brightly colored socks, dropping one at the finish of the first rep, dropping the other at the end of the second rep, retrieving the first on my way back to the starting point for interval number three, and so forth.

Stretch intervals improve pacing skill by challenging you to perceive tiny differences in speed and effort and to regulate your speed and effort with a higher degree of precision than you are accustomed to doing. Most runners find stretch intervals difficult both physically and mentally, yet also fun.

Half the Battle

Mastering the skill of pacing takes time. But every runner who commits to this process does improve, and has fun doing it. In this sense, runners who make the commitment are already halfway there, and miles ahead of those who continue to just sort of vaguely hope they get better at pacing. Are you ready to commit? Purchase your copy of ON PACE here, or read a free sample chapter.

In a recent post of mine—one that, like a number of my recent posts to this blog, dealt with the subject of pacing in running—I concluded with the following observation: “A masterful pacing performance like Scott Fauble’s 2:08:52 finish at this year’s Boston Marathon, which he achieved with dead-even 1:04:26 first- and second-half splits, are as marvelous to behold as a perfect golf shot, and the science behind such feats is truly mind-blowing.”

As a writer, I am endlessly surprised by the things certain readers get hung up on, and I was more than a little surprised that a few readers got really hung up on the above-quoted sentence. One commenter labelled the statement “controversial,” adding, “No way even split in Boston is optimal.” Another asserted that “even splits may very well be the scientifically ideal way to run a race but it’s just common sense that that isn’t the case with a hilly course.”

I’d like to take this opportunity to address these criticisms, not for the sake of winning an argument but to help runners like you better understand the important skill of pacing. Now, I will concede that I probably should have given an example of masterful pacing that was less vulnerable to being challenged than Scott Fauble’s even-split Boston Marathon, especially given that my purpose in adducing this example was not to provide empirical support for my main argument but simply to convey my appreciation for the beauty of expert pacing. But I chose Scott for a reason, and I stand by my claim that his pacing performance at this year’s Boston Marathon was masterful.

What made it masterful? First, as his 5K split times throughout the race attest, Scott avoided “bad” miles—those throwaway slow miles that have an outsized negative impact on finishing times. On all marathon courses, both flat and hilly, the runners who run the fewest miles at a pace that is slower than their average pace for the race as a whole come closest to winning at the end. While it is not optimal to be rigidly consistent with pace in a topographically interesting marathon like Boston, statistical analyses of pacing data from the Boston Marathon have shown that the least consistent pacers fare the worst, not just generally but also with respect to their own historical standards, and the most consistent pacers fare the best. Scott is now the fifth-fastest American finisher of the Boston Marathon in history, and he owes it partly to his choice and ability to pace the course with remarkable consistency.

The second reason I consider Scott’s pacing execution masterful is that he moved up from 22nd place at the halfway point of the race to 7th place at the finish. All of the fifteen athletes Scott passed in the second half ran positive splits (meaning their second half was slower than their first), in contrast to Scott’s even splits. I’ll delve deeper into the specifics of the Boston Marathon course profile in a minute, but the point to be made here is that, when my Facebook friends say that even splits in Boston are not optimal, what they are inferring is that a positive-split pattern is preferable in this particular event because the second half of the course features more climbing and less descending than the first. But if we accept this definition of “optimal,” then the fifteen runners Scott passed in the second half of the race did it “right” and Scott did it “wrong.” Which is absurd!

The third reason I consider Scott’s pacing execution masterful is the way he finished. I know Scott well, having trained with his team for thirteen weeks in 2017. He’s as tough as they come, and can dig deeper than just about anyone else in any race. Watching his beautifully ugly stretch run down Boylston Street put a lump in my throat, for it was clear he was digging as deep as he ever had, carving himself hollow in the hope of catching one more runner (the fading Albert Korir of Kenya—another positive splitter—who finished just two seconds in front of Scott) before it was too late. Try as he might, though, Scott wasn’t really able to kick per se, or lift his pace much at all, as far as I could discern. But he didn’t lose steam either, as Korir and the fifteen runners he’d overtaken had done.

This is the part of pacing skill that can’t be measured. If thirty-plus years as a runner and twenty-plus years as a coach and student of the sport have taught me anything, it’s that, when a runner is giving absolutely everything he has to give in the last part of a marathon and he neither speeds up (much) nor slows down in relation to the entire rest of the race, that runner his paced himself masterfully.

Grab some popcorn, I’m just getting warmed up.

Now, to the course. Much is made of how much tougher the second half of the Boston Marathon course is than the first half. Too much. Both halves are net downhill, with the first 22 kilometers dropping 72 meters and the last 20.2 kilometers dropping an additional 61 meters. Both halves feature uphill portions that go against the overall altimetric trend, although the lion’s share of the elevation gain does fall in the second half. So, while the second half is indeed tougher than the first, it’s not drastically so. When I emailed Scott Fauble to request his take on Boston, he said that, for an elite male racer like him, an even-split race like the one he ran equates to a 20- to 30-second negative split on a flat course like Berlin’s or Chicago’s. In other words, for a sub-2:10 guy, the second half of Boston’s course is 20 to 30 seconds slower than the first. That’s it.

I think most of Scott’s fellow elite Boston veterans would agree with this assessment, and if they’re right, then given what we know about optimal pacing in flat marathons, running even splits in Boston is in fact optimal. History shows us that, on a flat marathon course, a 20- to 30-second negative splint tends to yield the best final result among elite racers. The current men’s world record of 2:01:39 was set by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge in Berlin in 2018. He covered the first half of that race in 1:01:06 and the second half in 1:00:03, a 33-second negative split. Logic tells us that if a 20- to 30-second negative split is optimal in flat marathons for elite racers, and if a 20- to 30-second negative split in a flat marathon is equivalent to even splits at Boston, then even splits must be close to optimal in Boston, at least for top finishers.

By now my Facebook friends are beginning to sweat a little. “One example doesn’t make a pattern!” Fair point. Even most elites run positive splits in Boston. But most elites run positive splits in every major marathon, including flat ones. That’s because most elites race for position, not for time. They stay with the lead pack as long as they can and then they blow up. Or not. The most successful elite performances in Boston, as in every other major marathon, follow an even-split or a slight negative-split pacing pattern. Forget Scott Fauble. Geoffrey Mutai’s Boston Marathon course record of 2:03:02, which I witnessed from the media center back in 2011, resulted from splits of 1:01:57 and 1:01:05. The women’s winner that year, Caroline Kilel, split 1:11:30 and 1:11:06. Even in the rare year when a runner solos to victory off the front, as Meb Keflezighi did in 2014, we see the same pattern. Meb’s splits that year were 1:04:26 and 1:04:21.

Growing desperate, my Facebook friends move the goalposts, pointing out that what’s true for elite runners isn’t necessarily true for other runners. Scott himself expressed a similar caution in our email exchange, writing, “I don’t think you should take any lessons from a pro race on pacing.” But whereas Scott was talking about the difference between racing for position and racing for time, my Facebook friends, in their desperation, are suggesting that even splitting is unrealistic in Boston for nonelite runners.

I know from personal experience that this suggestion is baloney. I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2009, covering the first half in 1:19:45 and the second half in 1:59:25, finishing in 3:18:10. Oops. When I ran my fourth and final Boston Marathon ten years later, I’d figured out the race and gotten a lot better at pacing marathons generally. My splits on that occasion were 1:27:25 and 1:26:43, and I finished in 2:54:08. Hooray for me. But that’s not my point. My point is that I’m not Caroline Kilel or Meb Keflezighi—there’s nothing special about me. Any runner who is well prepared and who understands the course can pace Boston similarly and reach the finish line quicker for it.

scott fauble citius mag podcast
Credit: Kevin Morris Photographer

When I asked Scott Fauble if he could have done anything differently pacing-wise in the 2022 Boston Marathon that might have gotten him to the finish line quicker, his short answer was “probably not.” His longer answer was this: “I could have gone out faster. But the danger of that in Boston is because the second half is harder you’re risking losing a disproportionate amount of time on the hills if you go over the line. And more specifically, at Boston the last 5 miles are some that you absolutely have to take advantage of so I think it’s better to hold back and make sure you still have your legs coming home.”

This, folks, is what it means to understand Boston and how to run it! My Facebook friends’ take on the race is far less nuanced. It’s basically, “First half easy. Second half hard. Even split impossible.” But where these guys see only black and white, Scott and I see shades of gray. Take Heartbreak Hill. Despite the scary name, that thing is little more than a glorified speed bump, rising 91 feet over half a mile. If not for its placement in mile 21, it wouldn’t scare anyone. Sure, it doesn’t feel like a speed bump on tired legs, but only runners who don’t come prepared or who don’t heed Scott Fauble’s advice to “hold back” are slowed much by it. In 2011, Geoffrey Mutai’s fastest 5K split of the entire race (14:12) came between 30 and 35 km, a segment of the course that covers three of the four biggest climbs, including Heartbreak. Not only was Mutai not slowed down by those ascents, he sped up on them! And again, you don’t have to be Geoffrey Mutai to glide over these hummocks. In 2019, I covered mile 21 in 6:42, just 4 seconds slower than my pace for the race as a whole.

It’s beyond the scope of a single blog post to say everything there is to say about pacing the Boston Marathon, or pacing marathons more broadly, or pacing in general. My modest goal here is to impress upon you how much more subtle and nuanced is the art of pacing than folks recognize. Squinty eyes see only dyads: fast/slow, hard/easy, up/down, first part/last part. The reality of pacing is far more textured, in multiple dimensions—kinesthetic, perceptual, affective, cognitive. My message to you is this: If you want to find yourself walking up Heartbreak Hill, listen to my Facebook friends. But if you want to finish your next race, and the one after that, and the one after knowing you couldn’t possibly have done any better, as Scott Fauble did at the 2022 Boston Marathon, then do yourself a favor and read my full take on this important topic, ON PACE: Discover How to Run Every Race At Your Real Limit. Or read this free sample chapter and then decide if I know what I’m talking about.

Think about the last race you completed. Could you have gone any faster than you did? It’s a very simple question, yet a difficult one to answer in many cases. If you committed a major error in execution, such as running an entire track race in lane three, then it’s easy to answer in the affirmative. But if you did manage to avoid obvious mistakes, it’s hard to know whether or not you might have been able to squeeze out a few more seconds. In fact, it’s impossible to know.

Why? Because an unimprovable race performance requires perfect pacing, and perfect pacing is impossible to define or measure. Pacing entails purposely holding oneself back from one’s physical limit, and it’s this gap between self-imposed limit and physical limit that makes perfect pacing undefinable and unquantifiable. A true maximal effort cannot be sustained longer than 30 seconds, give or take, so athletes aim to sustain a level of effort that will put them at their physical limit when they’re within 30 seconds of the finish line and fatigue has reduced their capacity to match the level of their chosen effort. But no athlete ever sustains a perfectly steady output in a race and it’s doubtful that a perfectly steady output is even optimal. In long races, it’s not uncommon for an athlete to go through one or more rough patches, when their perceived effort level spikes, and most experts would agree that reducing one’s effort level slightly at these times leads to a better final outcome. Furthermore, research on pacing in real-world environments suggests that the best outcomes occur when athletes are able to kick (i.e., accelerate) at the very end of the race, which indicates they could have gone faster prior to that point—a paradoxical phenomenon, as it essentially means that athletes go fastest overall when they could have gone faster prior to the homestretch. Further muddying the waters is the fact that athletes’ performance limits are mutable, varying from one circumstance to the next based on a myriad of factors affecting perception of effort. For example, athletes almost always go faster in a group than they do alone.

Despite all this complexity, we have a pretty good idea what a perfectly paced race looks like as a platonic abstraction. A graph of such a performance would consist of two lines, one flat and the other upward-sloping. The flat line represents the athlete’s output (power, rate of energy expenditure), which remains quite steady between the start and finish. The upward-sloping vector represents the athletes’ perceived effort, which rises with perfect linearity over time and peaks just as the athlete finishes. These two lines indicate that the athlete has parceled their energy efficiently throughout the race and finished with nothing left in reserve. But again, this is an abstraction, and in any given real-world case it’s impossible to know if the athlete truly paced their race perfectly.

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Putting aside the unknowable nature of perfect pacing, most runners fall far short of perfection in their race pacing. This isn’t just my opinion—studies prove it. That’s why I wrote On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race At Your Real Limit. Do you need this book? Let’s find out. To test your current pacing ability, try the following test: First, determine your average pace per mile or per kilometer in your last half marathon. Next, go for a run. After warming up, run one mile or one kilometer at half-marathon effort, aiming to nail your exact average pace from your last half-marathon without looking at your watch. Note your actual time, then send your results to me here: by September 10th, 2022.

The 80/20 Endurance Pacing Challenge will operate on the honor system, so I’m trusting you not to lie or cheat. But you have little incentive do so, as no prizes will be awarded. Instead I will compile the results and share them in a future blog post, in which I will also provide tips on getting better at pacing.

Note that being able to hit a target pace accurately is not quite the same skill as being able to complete a race in the least time possible. But they’re similar enough that runners who are good at either one are almost always good at the other. Hence, if you run test mile or kilometer more than a few seconds too fast or slow, you have cause to believe you’re not pacing your races optimally and will benefit from reading and applying the methods taught in On Pace. If you prefer to skip the test and go straight to the book, you can purchase it here. And if you’re on the fence, you can read a free sample chapter here.

I enjoy seeing any sport performed at an elite level—even golf, which I’ve never played. When I tune into a television broadcast of a professional golf tournament I am amazed by the players’ control of the ball. If a caddie tells a player they’re 185 yards from the flag on their second shot of a par-four hole, chances are the player will hit the ball very close to 185 yards.

But how? Not by performing any conscious mathematical calculations, that’s for sure. Although knowing the distance to the flag is vital to hitting the ball the right distance, the rest is done entirely without mental arithmetic. Nor are external instruments involved in controlling the distance of a golf shot. If I asked you to drive your car 10.23 miles, you would succeed in driving precisely this distance by monitoring the vehicle’s trip odometer. But golfers do not rely on anything like an odometer to hit the ball a desired distance. Instead, the whole process is governed kinesthetically, which is to say, by using the subjective feelings of joint rotations and muscle contractions to manipulate the external environment.

In other words, when a caddie tells a golfer to hit the ball 185 yards, the golfer executes what feels like a 185-yard swing. A novice golfer has no sense of what a 185-yard swing feels like, and cannot perceive the kinesthetic difference between a swing that sends the ball 185 yards and one that sends it 175 or 195 yards. But through heavy repetition, golfers develop a more and more refined and accurate sense of what a swing of any given distance feels like, and develop a more and more precise ability to execute a swing that feels—and is—right. And the more gifted the player is in the areas of kinesthetic awareness and body control, the faster this learning process unfolds.

It all seems like magic to those of us who either don’t play golf or suck at it, but we all have some capacity for this kind of learning. Suppose I ask you to execute a 42 percent contraction of your left biceps. Electromyogram (EMG) sensors will allow us to measure how close you get to 42 percent of maximal contraction force on your first try. Let’s say you overshoot the mark, and are informed by the technician leading the test that you performed a 65 percent contraction. On your second try, you will consciously execute a contraction that feels somewhat less forceful than the first, and in this way you’ll get closer to the mark. With further practice, you could execute a contraction that’s very close to 42 percent of maximal—or any other percentage—every time.

In running, pacing is analogous to distance control in golf and to muscle contraction force accuracy in the hypothetical test just described. It’s just one more way of controlling one’s body in space to achieve a performance goal. To achieve the goal of completing a given race distance in the least time possible, a runner must be able to accurately tune their effort to the highest level that is sustainable for the full race distance. Just as a golfer must be able to feel what a 185-yard swing feels like, a runner must be able to feel whether they are running at the fastest pace they can sustain for the remaining distance of a race.

In my experience, most runners don’t recognize how similar pacing is to other sports skills that involve linking kinesthetic perception to objective performance. That’s one reason I wrote On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit—the debut release from 80/20 Publishing. The other reason I wrote an entire book on run pacing is that, in addition to not fully understanding what pacing really is, most runners don’t fully appreciate the importance of pacing skill.

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The way I see it, there are two ways to be good at running. One is to have the physical ability to sustain a fast pace over a long distance, which comes from innate talent and proper training. The second way to be good at running is to be good at pacing. Understandably, we runners tend to focus on physical fitness, but when you think about it, fitness is nothing more than potential. To fully realize their potential, runners must pace themselves perfectly, and perfect pacing is rare and difficult. As a coach, I place great emphasis on pacing skill development, and it pays. Runners who embrace the process see significant progress and enjoy themselves along the way, and you can too, by reading On Pace, which teaches the pacing skill development program I use with my clients.

Pacing is also just plain fascinating, in my opinion. A masterful pacing performance like Scott Fauble’s 2:08:52 finish at this year’s Boston Marathon, which he achieved with dead-even 1:04:26 first- and second-half splits, are as marvelous to behold as a perfect golf shot, and the science behind such feats is truly mind-blowing. I explain this science in simple terms in On Pace, making the book as entertaining (I hope) as it is edifying and useful.

Interested in learning more? Click here for a free sample chapter of On Pace, and here to purchase a copy.

In late November 1950, at the height of the Korean War, United Nations troops under the command of Major General Oliver Smith were encircled and attacked near the Chosin Reservoir by a vastly larger Chinese force. Facing total annihilation if they tried to hold their ground, Smith’s men instead executed a fighting withdrawal, puncturing the Chinese lines on the eastern side and escaping to the Port of Hungnam.

On December 4, Smith defended the choice to skedaddle before questioning reporters, saying, “Gentlemen, we are not retreating. We are merely advancing in another direction.” At the time, these words were widely mocked and derided as yet another example of dangerously self-deluding military doublespeak, akin to the later utterance by a U.S. army major in Vietnam, “It became necessary to destroy the village to save it.” But military experts have since come to Smith’s defense, arguing that, although his explanation was technically inaccurate—the troops under his command at the Chosin Reservoir most certainly did retreat—it was true in spirit.

Smith had three options when he found his 30,000 U.N. soldiers surrounded by 120,000 Chinese infantrymen. One was to surrender. Another was to stay and fight to the last man. Both of these options were forms of defeat. In choosing instead to retreat (or, if you prefer, to effect a fighting withdrawal), Smith avoided defeat, and that’s what he was trying to make the press understand with his famous remark.

The expression “live to fight another day” conveys the positive strategic function of retreat. Many times in the history of warfare, a major retreat has been effected by the side that went on to win the war. Examples include George Washington’s nighttime escape from Brooklyn during the American Revolution, the Allied evacuation of Gallipoli in World War I, and Mao Zedong’s yearlong retreat from Chinese nationalist forces in 1934 (known as the Long March). As these examples demonstrate, retreat can be a winning move, but the objective truth of this reality is one thing, getting retreating soldiers to believe and embrace it quite another. And that’s where the hidden brilliance of Major General Smith’s epigram lies.

Anyone who understands the art of war will tell you that morale is a critical element in a fighting force’s performance—every bit as important as weaponry and supplies, strategy and tactics, logistics and communication. I have no doubt that, whether or not reporters believed Smith’s men were “advancing in another direction” rather than retreating, the men themselves did, and because they did, the withdrawal went well. Their leader wanted them to see themselves as fighting to escape defeat or surrender and live to fight another day, not as running away with their tales between their legs.

The principle at work here applies to lots of other things besides warfare, including endurance sports. Just as military commanders prefer to win every battle at minimal cost, endurance athletes prefer to have things go smoothly in their training all the time. Both preferences, however, are unrealistic. Despite their best efforts, military commanders sometimes find their forces surrounded by vastly superior numbers of enemy combatants. Similarly, athletes sometimes encounter rough patches, injuries, illnesses, and other challenges in their training. What matters is how they respond, both tactically and emotionally.

In endurance training, the equivalent of fighting to the last man is stubbornly pushing through rough patches, injuries, illnesses, and the like—brave but doomed. The equivalent of surrender is giving up in frustration, another form of defeat. And the equivalent of retreat is resting or reducing the training load or getting extra sleep or making some other adjustment calculated to maximize the likelihood of a positive final outcome of the process.

Too many athletes wrongly view such adjustments as a kind of defeat also, lumping them together with self-sabotage and quitting. And because they do, they either stand their ground and get slaughtered (metaphorically speaking) or surrender when they would be better off retreating and living to fight another day, or else they go ahead and retreat but do so with a bad attitude, feeling defeated. If I’m describing you, then you need to do for yourself what Oliver Smith did for his troops at the Chosin Reservoir, reframing retreat as something positive.

Someday, God willing, I’m going to write a book called The Little Book of Running Mantras. When I do, it will include a chapter titled “Advancing in Another Direction.” As a coach, I believe that Smith’s fine phrase is highly useful as a self-reminder to runners and other endurance athletes who struggle to embrace “retreat” in their training. Tuck these words away, and deploy them whenever you’re tempted to fight to the last man or surrender instead of retreating, or when retreating threatens to harm your morale. Remember George Washington, and Mao Zedong, and the Allies, and know that, when you take a few days off or make some other sensible adjustment in response to a training setback, you are not going backwards, you are advancing in another direction toward your ultimate goal!

Lactate is having a moment. Our metabolite du jour owes its newfound celebrity largely to the hoopla surrounding the recent success of certain elite Norwegian endurance athletes, most notably triathlete Kristian Blummenfelt, who won the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Men’s Triathlon (held in 2021) and the 2021 Ironman World Championship (held in 2022), and who holds the world record for the Ironman 70.3 distance. Media stories about the success of Blummenfelt and his compatriots have homed in on their heavy reliance on blood lactate measurement in training, leading to a general impression among endurance athletes that this practice is the key (or at least a key) to their success, which in turn has caused my email inbox to be flooded by recreational endurance athletes asking me some version of the question, “Do I need to regularly measure my blood lactate in training to reach my full potential?”

I’ll attempt to answer this question by asking a different one: If Kristian Blummenfelt were somehow forbidden to ever again measure his blood lactate level, would he become less successful? Or better yet, If “Big Blu” had been prohibited from ever having his blood lactate measured from the very beginning of his career (he raced his first triathlon at thirteen), would he have been less successful to date? The answer to the former is almost certainly no. While I can’t speak for him, I’m confident that, after a moment of panic, Blummenfelt’s coach, Olav Aleksander Bu, would realize he could achieve the same end by different means, and in the long run the prohibition would prove to be little more than an inconvenience (not that blood lactate measurement is terribly convenient!). The two men have a system that clearly works, and lactate measurement is only a small part of it, and certainly not its essence.

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Photo from 220 Triathlon

The second hypothetical is more speculative in nature, as it requires going back in time. Without question, lactate testing played an important role in the development of Blummenfelt’s winning formula, but was it essential? I doubt it. Lactate measurement might be having a moment, but there are plenty of champion endurance athletes who make little or no use of the practice. If lactate measurement were truly essential for endurance training optimization, East Africans, for example, would not dominate the sport of running as they do.

Don’t straw-man me here. I’m not suggesting that lactate measurement is useless. Taking up the practice could be transformative for many recreational endurance athletes whose training is currently all wrong. I just think there are other ways to obtain the benefits of lactate measurement, which are pretty basic: First, it helps athletes regulate the intensity of their training. Second, it helps athletes track changes in fitness.

Photo from Train Right

Is it impossible to regulate intensity effectively or to track changes in fitness reliably without taking lactate measurements? Some people seem to think so, but I sure don’t. For example, some coaches like to use lactate measurements between during recovery periods in interval workouts to determine when the athlete should stop. (There’s nothing new about this practice, by the way—I remember Tom Craig employing it with Regina Jacobs in the 1990s.) Instead of trying to guess ahead of time how many intervals will maximize the workout’s intended purpose without overtaxing the athlete, these coaches just have the athlete keep going until their blood lactate level says they’ve had enough. That’s pretty neat, but any suggestion that there’s no other way to dose interval work optimally is poppycock.

Not to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty confident that the majority of interval workouts my athletes perform are neither too easy nor too hard. Simply knowing my athletes enables me to design workouts that are close to the Goldilocks Zone. The athlete then does the rest by understanding the purpose of the workout and fine-tuning the session as they go to ensure optimal execution. If lactate measurements were taken throughout every interval workout done by every athlete I coach, it would appear as if they were all planned around lactate. That’s because there are consistent mathematical relationships between blood lactate and things like breathing rate, time spent at a given power output, and perceived effort, making it possible to design and execute very precise training stimuli without reference to lactate.

Indeed, in an article on lactate training that got a lot of attention recently, former elite Norwegian runner Marius Bakken mentions that when he started taking lactate measurements on his Kenyan training partners, he found that they were doing a better job than his fellow Norwegians of hitting lactate targets—without actually targeting them! That kind of says it all right there.

In a certain sense, the argument that lactate measurement is essential to optimizing endurance fitness is akin to the argument (which nobody makes) that brain imaging is essential to optimizing learning. Although it is true that learning cannot occur unless the brain of the learner is changed in particular ways, the real point of learning is to make use of what is learned, and the best proof of learning is its practical use. Similarly, although endurance athletes cannot optimize their fitness without changing their lactate dynamics, the real point of training is to improve performance, and the best proof of performance is performance. If teachers and coaches respectively simply focus on improving what students and athletes can do, they can trust that their brains and bodies are changing in the necessary ways.

Again, though, I’m not pooh-poohing lactate measurement. To close with another hypothetical, if it somehow came about that I was required to conduct regular lactate testing with every athletes I coach, I have no doubt that certain of my decisions would be influenced by these measurements in ways I didn’t later regret. But the same can be said of virtually any source of valid data with known relevance to intensity and fitness, such as run power, which wasn’t a thing when I started coaching but is now something I use with a lot of runners and triathletes (without regarding it as essential, either).

“These other young coaches have their science blah blah but they are not as successful.”

—Coach Hailye, Out of Thin Air

There’s an endurance coach I follow on Twitter who tweets a lot. We’ll call him Dick Smart. I find him quite impressive on one level. A real numbers guy, he knows more about using data to regulate fitness development than I could ever hope to. But something else about him turns me off. For a while now I’ve been vaguely repelled by his public communications without knowing exactly why. Until I did.

The decisive clue lay in the tone of Dick Smart’s tweets, which never varies. They have a hectoring know-it-all quality that coveys the impression that their main purpose is not to edify but to demonstrate a kind of superiority. A consistent subtext lurks beneath the semantic surface of Dick Smart’s social media posts. While each tweet is superficially distinct from the rest, they all share the same hidden message. What Dick Smart is really trying to say to his followers, every single time he sits the Tweet button, is this: “As you can see, I have it all figured out, and you probably don’t.”

I don’t mean to be overly harsh. Dick Smart really knows his stuff, and I have no doubt that he helps a lot of athletes. But seeing what I see in him, I would never want him as my coach, nor would I ever refer an athlete to him. The better coaches, in my view, have humility, and I don’t see a lot of humility in Dick Smart. I don’t see him really listening to his athletes or letting them have much of a say in their training, or reacting well should they dare to question something he’s given them. I see him reflexively blaming the athlete anytime something goes wrong.

The better coaches, in my view, believe Vern Gambetta—himself a better coach—was right in writing, “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.” I don’t see Dick Smart aiming to cultivate self-sufficiency in his athletes. I might be wrong, but I suspect Dick Smart wants his athletes to feel utterly dependent on him.

Enough about Dick Smart. He doesn’t really concern me. What does concern me is the ongoing scientification of endurance coaching that I’m witnessing. There’s a new guard of coaches (all men, by the way) who see endurance training as a science and themselves as essentially scientists. From where I sit, this movement is both good and bad—good in that it is bringing about a needed standardization of training practices, bad in that it ignores and at times deprecates the human side of coaching. The attitude of these young Turks is encapsulated in something University of Oregon coach Rob Johnson said in an October 2021 interview with Oregonian writer Ken Goe: “Track is nothing but numbers. A good mathematician probably could be a good track coach.”

One senses that Rob Johnson and Dick Smart and their ilk regard their athletes as numbers—or at the very most, as subjects. Leaving aside the sheer ugliness of this attitude, it’s just plain wrong. The human element in coaching is hugely important. A mathematician lacking in emotional intelligence cannot be a good track coach. Heck, at the time Rob Johnson gave the interview I just quoted from, he was being accused by former athletes of damaging them emotionally with his relentless focus on numbers!

The best coaches care more about their athletes as human beings than as performers. They make an effort to get to know their athletes deeply—their likes and dislikes, their dreams and fears, their strengths and foibles. They know how to motivate and inspire them, are thoughtful and intentional about how they communicate with them, and are as interested in cultivating their mental fitness as their physical fitness. The best coaches are loved, not merely respected, by their athletes. And when I say “best,” I don’t just mean less likely to be accused of inflicting psychic damage. Studies have shown that athletes improve more when they have a strong emotional bond with their coach. That’s right: Science says that all-science-no-art coaches aren’t as effective!

In truth, the title of this article is misleading. Coaches don’t have to choose between art and science in developing a coaching style. Every endurance coach should have some level of literacy in relevant science. But all the scientific erudition in the world doesn’t do much good unless the coach who possesses it also has a modicum of fluency in the human aspect of coaching, and I see increasing numbers of coaches (I’m looking at you, Dick Smart!) who behave as if this aspect doesn’t even exist

What troubles me is that many athletes don’t perceive the stench emanating from Dick Smart’s tweets. They’re too distracted by his show of condescending omniscience, which convinces them he’s a terrific coach, perhaps the coach they need. My message to these athletes is this: Think twice!

What is the job of a coach? At the most basic level, it is to help athletes achieve their goals. Sounds reasonable, no? But the problem with this definition of the coach’s role is that it treats athletes’ goals as givens—as things that athletes come up with on their own and bring to coaches for help in achieving, and as such are outside the coach’s influence. As we all know, however, a discrepancy often exists between what a person thinks they want and what they ought to want, and this phenomenon applies as much to athletes and their goals is it does anywhere else.

The way I see it, the goal behind all goals in sports is mastery. An athlete who has mastered their sport makes good decisions with confidence whenever a sport-related decision is to be made. Mastery has nothing to do with being “good” at one’s sport in the common sense. An untrained beginner with a natural gift for running might beat a bunch of highly trained veterans in a race, but that doesn’t make the victorious upstart a master of the sport of running. Only if they go on to realize their full potential as a runner will mastery have been achieved, and only when we see the athlete consistently making good decisions with confidence will we know they have realized their full potential.

If you think I’m making rather much of the role of decision making in sports, then you don’t understand sports. Athletes make consequential decisions every day in training and competition. Recently I wrote admiringly about the decision Coaches of Color apprentice Jessica Schnier made to cancel an important weekend of training for an upcoming 50-mile trail race because of a minor niggle in her ankle. As a result of this decision, she was back to full training within a week, the niggle behind her. Had she instead ignored the warning and stuck to her schedule, as I believe most athletes would have done in her place, it’s very likely she would have turned a small problem into a big one.

A good example of smart decision making in competition comes from American 800-meter runner Ajeé Wilson’s recent gold-medal performance at the IAAF World Indoor Championships. An inveterate frontrunner, Ajeé lost the sprint for position at the start of the 800-meter final and found herself unaccustomedly mired in the middle of the eight-woman field. The thing is, had she really want to, she could have claimed her usual spot at the front. But when it became clear she would have to risk too much precious energy to early in the race to do so, she decided to back off.

The smart decisions continued from there. Instead of getting antsy and trying to move up earlier than necessary, Wilson ran patiently in the thick of the pack, hugging the rail to minimize the distance she had to cover. Then, approaching the start of the last lap, she moved into lane two, giving her a clear path to the front, and with 200 meters to go she rocketed into the lead, where she remained to the finish. You can tell that her decision to go all-in at the moment she did was spontaneous, an opportunistic reaction to her reading of the situation. I’ve watched a lot of championship 800-meter finals over the years, and I can’t recall another that was won in quite this way. Ajeé Wilson essentially invented a new way to win in the heat of battle. That’s mastery.

For every Ajeé Wilson and Jessica Schnier there are a hundred athletes who make bad decisions routinely. In oner way or another, most of these bad decisions are rooted in fear. Jessica experienced fear of losing fitness if she skipped a few runs to let her ankle quiet down. Again, most athletes give in to this fear and make the bad decision to plow ahead. And I’m certain Ajeé felt a degree of fear (or at least concern) when her tried-and-true race strategy was thwarted right from the start of the recent world championships. A more typical athlete would have given in to this fear and done something dumb like run in lane two or force their way through the crowd earlier than necessary.

Another way to frame this discussion is to state that most athletes are self-limiting. Their thoughts and feelings produce behaviors that impede their progress toward mastery. If you were to sit down and talk openly with such an athlete about why they routinely make fear-based bad decisions, you would  eventually discover that the self-limiting tendency has deep roots in their personality and life history. And if you were to do the same thing again with a different athlete, you would obtain the same result, except in the specifics.

Now suppose that you are the coach of the athletes in this thought experiment. The implications are clear: In order to succeed in coaching athletes toward mastery, you need to expose and work on the deep-rooted sources of their self-limiting fears. We tend to think of this as the work of psychotherapists, but there’s no way around the fact that it is also the work of coaches, or at least those coaches interested in coaching mastery.

The psychotherapists reading article this might be seeing red and shouting, “Stay in your lane!”, alarming their fellow subway riders. But I think coaches can have it both ways—working on athletes’ minds while respecting the limits of their expertise—in two ways. The first is to educate themselves on developmental psychology. The second is to keep their mental work with athletes squarely focused on sport-specific problems.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there existed a comprehensive and authoritative resource that walked coaches through the process of coaching mastery? Stay tuned.

When I was a younger man I used to shake my head in pity when reading the writings of endurance sports experts of a certain age. They tended to repeat the same things over and over, evidently because they had nothing new to say. Because they hadn’t learned anything new about their field of expertise since they were young themselves. Because they hadn’t bothered to try to continue learning. At some point, it seemed, they had simply decided they knew their stuff and stopped seeking out new knowledge.

These aging authorities struck a sad figure in my eyes. As a young man aspiring to expertise in endurance sports, and who therefore payed close attention to new and recent developments in them, I recognized that certain members of the old guard were being left behind, and worst of all, that they failed to recognize their own waning relevance. With the boldness of youth, I vowed never to put myself in such a pathetic position.

Time flies, and now I am a man of a certain age. And, God help me, I feel myself slipping a bit knowledge-wise. Granted, age is not the only factor in my case but also illness. For many years I relied on my own training and racing to stimulate new learning. Long covid has stripped me of my ability to do these things, forcing me to look elsewhere for knowledge. But I can’t blame poor health entirely for my slippage. I can feel my brain slowly transforming from an absorbent sponge into an impenetrable fortress, a normal part of aging. I have less and less patience for technology, for example.

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Nevertheless, it remains the case that I don’t want to fall behind, so I pounced when Philip Skiba announced the release of his new book Scientific Training for Endurance Athletes, a review copy of which the author was kind enough to send me. I couldn’t have picked a better way to fill the emerging gaps in my knowledge of endurance training. Skiba is a heavyweight in the field, a technical savant who holds both a medical degree and a doctorate in exercise physiology, has coached a number of elite triathletes, and served as a consultant to Nike’s Breaking2 project.

True to his scientific leanings, Skiba takes a bottom-up approach to explicating how to train for endurance racing, going from physiology to intensities to workout types to periodization. Personally, I prefer a top-down approach that starts with real-world best practices, as I believe that context is everything and that, for this reason, it’s impossible to deduce best training practices from physiology. That being said, Skiba’s approach serves mainly as a pedagogical device, and it does an effective job of making sense of endurance fitness and training objectives. Indeed, Skiba has a special gift for making science understandable to the layperson, of which I am one. My favorite passage in the entire book is his house metaphor of endurance fitness, which goes like this:

The foundation is your basic strength and resilience. The floor is your endurance capacity, and the ceiling is the critical power/speed. The roofline is your VO2max. The top of the roof is your peak power output. Let’s imagine that your current marathon speed (usually very close to lactate threshold) is equal to your height. You walk into your house, and mark your height on the wall. With time, as you train, you grow taller. In the beginning, the whole house grows with you. However, what you will find is that with time you will begin to bump your head against the ceiling. You need to do some specific renovations on the house to raise the ceiling so that you can continue to grow. However, what you will quickly find is that you are squeezing the ceiling too close to the attic above. Eventually, you need to raise the attic as well.

Skiba's House Metaphor
Skiba’s House Metaphor

Overall, I found Skiba’s book reassuring. While I learned a lot from reading it, including how to calculate optimal interval numbers for individual athletes based on their current fitness, for the most part it confirmed what I already knew and left me feeling I haven’t yet fallen as far behind as I had begun to fear. The book also heightened my sense that, increasingly, the folks who really know what they’re talking about with respect to endurance training are speaking the same language. With his focus on the power-duration curve, which represents fitness in terms of how long an individual athlete can sustain a given power output or velocity across the spectrum of effort levels, Skiba approaches the problem of developing race-specific fitness through the same lens as the likes of Stryd, Alan Couzens, and yours truly.

Scientific Training for Endurance Athletes isn’t for everyone, but it has become the very first book I recommend to performance-minded athletes who want a thorough and up-to-date understanding of how endurance training works and how to make it work best. Already I’ve purchased a copy for Coaches of Color Initiative apprentice Jessica Schnier, added it to the Resources section of the forthcoming 80/20 Endurance coaching textbook, and convinced a couple of the athletes I coach to order it. And you can soon expect Dr. Skiba to be a guest on the 80/20 Endurance podcast, where we’ll dive much deeper into his impressive work (and I don’t just mean impressive for an old guy!).



Among the benefits of traveling internationally is that it gives you a different perspective on your own country. For example, in 2015 I spent two weeks in Kenya conducting research for my book The Endurance Diet, and it was there that I came to fully appreciate how screwed up America’s relationship with food is.

As part of my research, I ate nothing but traditional Kenyan food at every meal, and I returned to the States two pounds later than I’d been when I left. The most fattening characteristic of any diet is how processed its constituent foods are, and the Kenyan diet is minimally processed. But that’s not the only reason I lost weight during my East African sojourn. The other reason is that there are no food commercials on Kenyan television. None. Not that I actually watched a lot of television while I was there, but the larger point is that food is not constantly shoved in people’s faces in Kenya as it is here. And it has an effect. By the end of my stay, I found myself thinking about food a lot less than I did back home.

I thought of this experience recently when, against my better judgment, I waded into an online debate about fasted workouts. My goal in doing so was to help the other parties recognize fasted workouts as the simple, straightforward practice they are, but this proved impossible, and I think it’s because America has a screwed-up relationship with food.

I was up against two separate factions in this debate, both of which viewed fasted workouts as extreme and radical, each in a different way. One faction regarded the practice of completing a workout on an empty stomach as a kind of torture—a gratuitous sufferfest ending in degrees of exhaustion never approached in regular workouts. This is absurd. A fit and well-nourished athlete who chooses to delay breakfast until after a workout is only minimally compromised by having their metabolic fuel tanks less than fully topped up. The science is rather abundant in this area. For example, in a 2012 study by Australian researchers, trained cyclists completed 60-minute time trials in fasted and non-fasted conditions, averaging 282 watts after a good breakfast and 273 watts on empty stomachs. That’s a 2.8 percent difference in performance.

In prolonged exercise bouts, the impact of skipping breakfast is greater but still far milder than some athletes seem to believe. A 1999 study by Tim Noakes and colleagues found that moderately trained subjects lasted an average of 136 minutes in a time-to-exhaustion cycling test at 70 percent of VO2max in the fed state compared to 109 minutes in the fasted state. That’s an 18 percent difference. In practical terms, this means you should feel no more fatigued at the end of a 14-mile fasted training run than you would be at the end of a 16.5-mile post-breakfast run. If you factor in the additional effect of withholding calories during the run, which fasted workouts require, the difference becomes somewhat greater, but even then it’s nowhere close to extreme.

Why, then, do some athletes regard fasted workouts as extreme? I think it’s because we are overfed as a society. In America, unlike Kenya, not only are our television screens filled with (junk) food advertisements, but these advertisements are carefully designed to brainwash us into being disposed to overeat, attaching positive associations to words like “crave” and “stuffed” and negative associations to “hunger” (and I’m talking about normal appetite, not chronic malnourishment). Consider Snickers’ “You’re not you when you’re hungry” ad campaign, which encourages viewers to keep a 2-ounce calorie bomb in their pocket wherever they go so they can cram it down their gullet the moment they feel the slightest hint of want in their tummies. We all like to think we’re immune to such mind-meddling, and we’re all wrong, and the fact that a certain faction of athletes finds it unimaginable to occasionally delay breakfast until after they’ve completed a workout proves it.

Another thing that Kenya has a lot less of than America does is disordered eating. Not all pockets of American society have high rates of eating disorders, but endurance sport is one pocket that does. Research has shown that people who struggle with disordered eating tend to have a history of trying popular diets (e.g., keto) and dietary practices (e.g., intermittent fasting). This is not to say that such diets and practices cause eating disorders; rather, it’s evidence that individuals who are predisposed to disordered eating tend to be attracted by such things.

Fasted workouts fit this mold. They are the type of practice that certain athletes are drawn to for the wrong reasons. Although I don’t know of any real cases, I can easily imagine that some athletes have overused or misused fasted workouts and subsequently developed eating disorders. Because this risk exists, a certain faction within the endurance sports community believes that fasted workouts should not be promoted. But to me this is like banning automobiles because some people drive while impaired. Depriving all athletes of the opportunity to benefit from this practice is unfair to the majority of athletes who are at low risk of developing an eating disorder and it is also not a legitimate solution to the problem of disordered eating within the athletic community.

As an endurance coach and writer, I’m focused on promoting fasted workouts responsibly. Although not inherently risky, fasted workouts are an advanced method that only makes sense for athletes who are already doing the basic things that yield bigger improvements in fitness, which include training at high volume, maintaining high diet quality, obeying the 80/20 rule of intensity balance, and eating enough throughout the day every day. Fasted workouts are meant to help athletes who’ve already realized 99 percent of their genetic potential through these and other fundamentals squeeze out that last 1 percent. For everyone else—including all youth athletes—they can wait, and for those who have any kind of history of disordered eating or any reason to believe they might be at risk for it, they can wait forever.

By way of closing, I would just like to mention that in Kenya, for cultural rather than scientific reasons, most runners do their first and hardest run of the day before breakfast every single day. Someone needs to tell them how radical and extreme this practice is so they can stop doing it and finally get good at running!

In a recent blog post I mentioned that highly successful endurance athletes have a “whatever works” mindset. Today I’d like to expand on this concept and contrast it with a phenomenon that I call means attachment, which is common among less successful athletes.

As the name suggests, means attachment entails becoming attached to particular means of achieving goals or outcomes. An athlete who tends toward means attachment wants certain chosen methods to work and is resistant to abandoning them in the face of evidence that they don’t work. For example, an athlete might decide he wants a low-volume, high-intensity training approach to prepare him optimally for races and will stick with this approach despite repeatedly hitting the wall far short of the finish line. Or an athlete might decide he wants a low-carb diet to increase his endurance by boosting his fat-burning capacity and will stick with it despite consistently feeling sluggish during workouts and recovering slowly between them.

In its essence, means attachment is a form of mental laziness. It stems from a natural desire to discover what works and then be done with it, trusting the chosen means to deliver the desired results without any need to evaluate, learn, and adapt. It takes less mental energy to pursue athletic goals through means attachment than through a “whatever works” approach. That’s its advantage. Its disadvantage is that is it doesn’t deliver results as effectively as the “whatever works” approach.

The most insidious manifestations of means attachment are weddedness to plans and the so-called hard work security blanket. The former entails resisting deviating from one’s training plan despite clear indications that a deviation is in order. The hard work security blanket is a tendency to regard and treat workouts as the only factors affecting fitness and performance, hence to prioritize them above rest, sleep, life balance, etcetera. The classic scenario entails the emergence of pain during a critical period of training. Athletes who carry a hard work security blanket and are prone to training plan weddedness are unlikely to do the prudent thing in these scenarios, attempting to train through the niggle instead of training around it, often with disastrous consequences. Raise your hand if you’ve ever done something like this. Thought so.

At the recent 80/20 Endurance Endeavorun Austin Running Retreat I met an athlete who modeled the “whatever works” approach to dealing with this type of situation. That athlete was none other than Jessica Schnier, our current Coaches of Color Initiative coaching apprentice. Jessica was seven weeks away from her first 50-mile trail ultramarathon when she arrived in Austin and had a big weekend of training on the calendar. But during a speed workout with the group she developed pain in her right ankle. It wasn’t a show stopper, but experience and reason told Jessica it would be unwise to complete the next day’s scheduled 16-miler. So she didn’t.

Sounds so simple, right? But Jessica is human, and as obvious as it was to her what she needed to do, it still wasn’t easy to do it. The same impulse that persuades most athletes to go ahead and train through niggles tried to persuade Jessica to do the same, but she resisted it.

The morning after her self-imposed day off, I checked in with Jessica at breakfast. She said the ankle was feeling somewhat better and she planned to test it out with a bit of light jogging while moving from point to point of the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon racecourse, cheering on camp attendees who were competing. It would have been easy for her to get sucked into doing more, especially if the ankle felt good, but again she resisted. The weekend concluded with her having logged roughly two miles of the twenty-six that had been on her calendar.

One week after her niggle first announced itself, I checked in with Jessica again on the status of her ankle, this time via text message. Here’s her response: “It’s great! No issues on my runs this week so far.”

This is how the story usually ends when an athlete takes a “whatever works” approach to dealing with a pain experience in training. There’s no way to know what would have happened if she had instead expressed means attachment by training through the niggle more aggressively, but it’s very likely she would have ultimately been forced to  miss more training than she voluntarily forfeited in Austin.

If taking a “whatever works” approach were easy, everyone would do it. But although it isn’t easy, it is simple. All it requires is that you listen to your inner voice of reason when making decisions such as whether to training through a niggle. We all have this voice. Give yours the deciding vote when making your next important athletic decision.

When I was fourteen years old I suffered a catastrophic knee injury during a soccer game. I didn’t even know what an ACL was until the orthopedic surgeon who patched me up (sounding more impressed than sympathetic) explained that I had torn mine clean off the bone. What I did know, well before I received this diagnosis—from the moment, in fact, that I dropped to the grass and clutched my knee as I’ve seen so many professional athletes do since then—was that, whatever I had done to myself, it was really, really bad. I had experienced plenty of pain in my rough-and-tumble backwoods childhood, including two bone fractures, but the pain of this new injury was so far greater in degree that it seemed almost different in kind, as though the word “pain” did not apply and another word was needed.

This happened so long ago—we’re talking 1985—that I no longer remember at what point in the process I set a conscious goal to get through the whole ordeal without crying (having somehow managed not to cry as I lay jackknifed on the turf knowing I had played my soccer game). Nor did I reflect on why it felt right to pursue this goal; it just did.

“Toxic masculinity!” cry the woke. “You were just another testosterone-addled adolescent male socialized to suppress outward displays of vulnerability!”

Wrong. In my fifty years on earth I have never met anyone who despised toxic masculinity (or machismo, as we called it in 1985) more than my father, who was (as you would expect) my primary male role model. He reacted with visceral disgust when other men exhibited the worst traits of our sex. A notable feminist thread ran through much of his own writing, including his novel Poor Richard’s Lament, which puts Benjamin Franklin on trial (literally) for misogyny, among other crimes.

So no, my commitment to dry eyes had nothing to do with restrictive gender norms. In hindsight, I think it had more to do with the fact that I had been a crybaby earlier in my youth. Indeed, the vow I made not to cry after my knee injury was not my first such vow. To this today I retain a clear memory of riding home one afternoon on the school bus as a first-grader, thinking, “When I get home, Josh [my older brother] is going to do something mean, and I’m going to cry. I know this because it happens every day. But not today!”

Sure enough, Josh was mean to me that afternoon, and I did not cry. Nor did I cry during the long, long year of my ACL ordeal, though I came very close on one occasion. The thing I hadn’t counted on when I made my vow was that the pain of physical therapy would eclipse even that of the first twenty-four hours after surgery, but oh, boy did it ever. My assigned torturer was a young PT with leading-man looks that belied an iron grip. When I came out of the cast six weeks post-surgery I had a 15-degree range of motion in my left knee, as compared to 135 degrees in my right knee. The only way to restore full mobility was to manually stretch out the repaired ACL, which had been stapled back in place as tightly as possible so the knee wouldn’t wobble later. My handsome persecutor achieved the desired outcome by placing me facedown on a padded table, seizing my shank in two strong hands, and throwing his full weight and strength into pressing my heel toward my butt.

He might as well have been trying to force a loaf of bread into a pickle jar. The joint did not budge. Paul grunted and wheezed with the effort. Gruesome popping and crackling sounds issued from the knee. The pain was indescribable, like being flayed alive. Yet I was determined not to cry. As Paul continued to press down on me, I squeezed my eyeballs so hard that, had they been coals, they would have become diamonds. Every muscle in my body contracted. My top and bottom teeth soldered themselves together. In the worst moment, a single soblike sound escaped me, but that was just reflex, I swear, and doesn’t count as crying.

Understand that I have nothing against crying in principle. I don’t judge other people for breaking down, and I make no effort to resist crying for others. When my beloved dog Queenie died a few months ago, I wept a few times. But I don’t like crying for myself. Again, I don’t judge others, but for me it seems symbolic of giving in to self-pity. Translated to English, all that boo-hooing would come out as, “Why me?”, which strikes me as a dumb question. I mean, why not me?

My latest ordeal has been a thousand times worse than the ACL episode, yet not once during my sixteen-month struggle with long covid have I been even tempted to cry for myself. I suppose my prior vows have been internalized to the point where not giving in to self-pity has become second nature. I have long-hauler friends who have cried plenty, and I wouldn’t say they’re coping any less successfully than I am. We each have our own coping style, and mine includes a certain stoicism, a stiff upper lip. Complain I will, but cry I won’t.

In addition to not crying, I ensure I don’t give in to self-pity by exposing myself to the examples of people who cope with extreme hardship better than I do. It was for this purpose that I sat down with my wife last week to watch the new film Salt in My Soul, which documents the life and death of Mallory Smith, a California girl who at age three was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a disease that no long-hauler in their right mind would ever trade for. I was duly humbled by the joy and generosity Mallory was able to manifest in her brief and tormented existence. How can you not admire a young woman who nicknames the oxygen tank she’s forced to wheel around everywhere she goes during her freshman year of college Sexy Pete?

As the movie ended, I made a new vow to myself, to try to be a bit more like Mallory going forward. And yes, I was in tears, but so was my wife, and neither of us was crying for me.

Billy Sperlich is one of the world’s leading experts in the area of training intensity distribution (TID) in endurance sports. I’ve often cited his research, which he conducts out of the University of Würzburg, in my books, articles, and blog posts. Recently, Sperlich released a series of eleven tweets summarizing the “experiences and takeaways” he’s accumulated in studying TID over the past few years, with links to the studies he’s been involved in. It’s a tidy little resource for endurance athletes and coaches, so I’ve taken the liberty of repackaging it here, with supplemental commentary.

1. “TID between endurance sport and time of season vary considerably”

This tweet includes a link to a comprehensive 2015 review of existing research on training intensity balance in endurance athletes that Sperlich collaborated on with colleague Thomas Stöggl. Although the text of the tweet conveys the impression that the findings are all over the map, honestly, if I knew nothing about endurance training and I read this review I would come away feeling quite confident that I would get good results from a high-volume, mostly low-intensity training approach, regardless of my specific sport or current phase of training.

2. “The TID quantification method substantially influences the proportion of low/medium/high intensity training”

 This tweet includes a link to a new study involving endurance kayakers that Sperlich conducted with three other researchers. It showed that individual athletes’ training intensity balance varied significantly depending on whether it was measured with performance metrics or physiological metrics. My takeaway as a coach is to avoid mixing and matching intensity metrics in measuring TID.

3. “Maybe different TID quantification methods are necessary depending on the time of season”

This tweet links to the same study as the previous one. On the basis of their findings, Sperlich et al. speculated that each of three methods of measuring intensity—velocity, heart rate, and blood lactate—has advantages and disadvantages, and that it may be sensible for coaches to prioritize different ones at different times in a training cycle.

I’ve actually found it useful to prescribe individual workouts with different intensity metrics from day to day, based on each metric’s strengths and weaknesses and the type of workout. For example, I might give a runner a power-based hill repetitions run on Tuesday, a heart-rate based easy run on Wednesday, and a pace-based tempo run on Thursday. This is somewhat different from using different intensity metrics to monitor and regular intensity balance, though.

4. “The seasonal analysis of TID reveals extensive inter-individual variability”

 This tweet includes a link to another study involving elite paddle sports competitors. Sperlich and his collaborators found a high degree of variability in individual athletes’ training intensity balance at different periods of training. But again, all of the athletes spent the bulk of their time at low intensity in all phases.

5. “Published ‘Polarized’ TID observations are not necessarily ‘polarized’”

A polarized TID is one in which little time is spent at moderate intensity. This tweet links to a study coauthored by Sperlich that describes and validates a tool called the polarization index, which quantifies the degree of polarization in a given period of training. This tool is useful in determining how effective a polarized approach to TID is compared to other approaches.

6. “Athletes with pyramidal TID during preparation may (automatically) shift to polarized TID when entering competition period”

The primary alternative to a polarized approach to TID is a pyramidal approach, wherein more time is spent at moderate intensity than at high intensity. This tweet links to a prospective, controlled study, again coauthored by Sperlich, in which elite rowers were separated into two groups, one of which trained with a polarized intensity balance while the other trained with a pyramidal intensity balance for eleven weeks. Neither group improved more than the other, which isn’t shocking because the two programs were the same in most respects, containing equal volume and similar amounts of training at low intensity. At the elite level, both polarized and pyramidal training are dominated by low-intensity training. (There seems to be a theme emerging here . . .)

7. “The analysis of waking hour TID (training & off-training TID) shows a broader more holistic perspective to understand the TID-dose-response”

 This tweet links to an interesting study published last year that explored the influence of non-scheduled activity on training intensity balance, training volume, and performance in elite male rowers. In essence, Sperlich and his collaborators sought to find out what difference it makes, if any, if daily activities outside of formal workouts are measured the same way formal workouts are. What they found was that such activities had a small but statistically significant impact on training volume and TID but no impact on performance.

8. “Not much TID analysis exist in female endurance athletes.”

 This point is underscored by the fact that there is no study linked to from the tweet! Kudos to Sperlich for drawing attention to the problem.

9. “Too much ‘black and white’ in the ‘80:20 TID story’. This specific low:high-intensity TID may work in one sport or for one athlete or during a certain period of the season but is far from the obtained data of the last years and surely no universal best-practice TID.”

Am I wrong to feel personally targeted by this one? Arguably, I’ve done more than anyone to promote the “80:20 TID story”. Yet my own thinking about the 80/20 intensity balance is far from black-and-white, and I’ve taken pains to express this nuance. Exhibit A is the following excerpt from my 2014 book 80/20 Running:

There’s no reason to tie yourself in knots trying to aim for perfectly round numbers. What is important is that you avoid ratios that are way off the mark, such as 100/0, 30/70, and the 50/50 ratio that is the norm for recreational runners.

In short, the ideal balance of training intensities is a narrow range rather than a precise ratio. But that range may be slightly different for individual runners. The 80/20 Rule is what Seiler has referred to as a population optimum. This means that a training intensity distribution that is very close to 80/20 is best for most, but not all, runners. A few runners respond better if they do a little less or a little more of their training at low intensity. There is no evidence, however, of extreme “outliers” who respond poorly to 80/20 training and much better to either a heavily speed-based program or to an always-slow regimen that lacks any work at higher intensities. So you can’t go wrong by following the 80/20 Rule. It’s certainly the place to start. As you gain experience, though, you may find that you respond better to a 70/30 ratio or a 90/10 ratio, in which case you’ll want to make that your personal rule. But it’s more likely that you will find your sweet spot closer to 80/20.

The sweet spot shifts, however, as the training process moves along…

Exhibit B (and I could easily adduce exhibits C through Z if I weren’t fearful of boring you) is a blog post I wrote last year, titled “How to Practice 80/20 Training Without Really Trying,” where I lament, “I do see a fair number of athletes overthinking the whole 80/20 thing, and it concerns me,” before going on to advocate a nonliteral interpretation of 80/20 defined by two rules: 1) Be sure you’re actually at low intensity when you intend to be, and 2) Devote roughly one out of every three training sessions you do to moderate or high intensity.

To the extent that I am guilty of overselling 80/20, I’m not sorry. I’m a coach, not a scientist, and like any good coach I love truth, but I love results even more. As the legendary basketball coach Billy Donovan said, “Believe it your system, and then sell it to your players.” Buy-in is critical to athletic success. A good system that an athlete believes in will always yield stronger results than a better system an athlete hasn’t fully bought into. Scientists are understandably uncomfortable with this reality, but it is the reality. “You lied!” says the scientist to the coach. “I exaggerated,” answers the coach, “and I won because of it.”

10. “Single case TID observation of elite athletes are interesting for the examined athlete but not a blueprint for all other athletes => My experience: The day-by-day decision-making forms a TID signature which depends on several internal and external factors.”

I agree. But who is actually suggesting that single-case observational studies of training intensity balance in elite athletes are a blueprint for all athletes?

11. “Seeking for a best practice (a priori) universal TID pattern most likely will not assist personalized training prescription… (and probably does not exist…)”

This statement seems to suggest that coaches need to start completely from scratch with each new athlete, behaving as if nothing that any athlete has ever done before has any relevance whatsoever to the next athlete to come along. While I certainly agree that the optimal training recipe for each athlete is unique in the fine details, the last time I checked, all endurance athletes were human, and certain things are generally true for all humans, and for Pete’s sake, a coach has to start somewhere with a new athlete! And yes, I do believe that elite best practices are the best starting point.

What’s missing from Sperlich’s tweets is any acknowledgement of just how poorly the vast majority of endurance athletes manage their training intensity balance. The typical recreational endurance athlete is so far away from optimal TID it’s not even funny. Also missing from the thread is any kind of nod to the reality that the vast majority of recreational endurance athletes do not have one-on-one coaches.

To be more specific, the typical recreational endurance athlete is caught in the moderate-intensity, doing far too little training at low intensity. When such an athlete goes from muddling along on their own to following one of the readymade 80/20 plans available in my books or on this website, they almost invariably experience breakthroughs in fitness and performance. Most of them also feel better in training and enjoy the process more, and many report a reduction in injury frequency.

Does this mean that athletes can do no better than follow a readymade 80/20 plan? Of course not. There is another level, and it is the personalized approach Sperlich advocates. I love to see athletes take this last step in the process of true training optimization, but it’s not a realistic step for many.

On January, 22, 2020, five days after thirty-eight year old Sara Hall set a new American record of 1:07:15 for the half marathon, Women’s Running magazine published an article titled “Sara Hall Shares 7 Keys to Her Longevity of Excellence.” For your convenience, I have copied the article’s section headings, which neatly summarize Hall’s secrets, and pasted them here:

“Immersing herself in the love of running”
“Being relentlessly resilient”
“Embracing imperfection”
“Trusting and adapting in training”
“Keeping the faith”
“Focusing on a full life”
“Turning disappointment into teaching moments”

There’s a lot of wisdom packed in these few phrases, but do they constitute a complete recipe for “longevity of excellence”? Of course not, as I’m sure Hall herself would agree. One additional nugget of advice I would offer to aging endurance athletes is this: Assume nothing. By this I mean that you must not assume you will slow down, or your training capacity will decrease, as you get older. Just keep chugging along as though you are immune to the laws of nature that affect other aging athletes and see what happens.

I first heard this advice many years ago from Dave Scott, the legendary six-time Ironman world champion. When Scott was twenty-eight he told his girlfriend Linda Buchanan that he wanted to be even fitter at forty than he was then. Well, he got his wish. In 1994, three months shy of his forty-first birthday, Scott narrowly missed winning a seventh Ironman title, finishing a close second to thirty-year-old Greg Welch. “I didn’t feel like there were any boundaries,” Scott told me years later. “I was constantly reminded of how old I was, but those comments went in one ear and out the other.”

Psychologists have demonstrated that expectations of all kinds tend to be self-fulfilling. It’s not surprising, then, that athletes like Dave Scott, who perform as well after forty as they did before, tend to share a defiant attitude toward the aging process. Some even talk about aging as an advantage. “The more you age, the more you’re getting stronger,” said twenty-seven-time world record-breaker Haile Gebrselassie at a press conference before the 2010 New York City Marathon, when he was officially thirty-seven years old but probably closer to forty-one. “I still feel like age of twenty.” Alas, Gebrselassie wound up DNF’ing the next day, but three years later he was still winning major races, including the Vienna Half Marathon.

Let’s be clear: Age is more than just a number. It is an inexorable biological process ending in death. Athletes who extend their peak performance years into their forties by virtue of high expectations are not defying the laws of nature. If it were not physically possible to set an American record at thirty-eight, Sara Hall would not have done so. In continuing to improve as they approach middle age, the Sara Halls of the world are merely exploiting a possibility that exists in all of us.


This was shown in a recent study by researchers at Germany’s Martin Luther University. The purpose of the study was to identify differences in how older and younger athletes tolerate and recover from high-intensity interval training. Two groups of twelve well-trained cyclists and triathletes, one with an average age of twenty-four and the other with an average age of forty-seven, completed a series of HIIT sessions. During and after each workout, a variety of physiological measurements were taken in an effort to assess how stressful the interval set was for the individual and how quickly the athlete recovered. For example, the researchers looked at the rate at which lactate was cleared from the bloodstream during recovery intervals. They found no differences between the two groups in any of these measurements, leading them to conclude (in language so bloodlessly scientific it’s almost self-parodying), “[I]t seems that the trainability of the organism is maintained.”

Findings like this one suggest that, for athletes over forty who experience a marked decline in performance, the flesh is willing but the spirit is weak. This was certainly Dave Scott’s take, as he explained in the above-referenced conversation: “I think it comes back to how hungry you are in your workouts and how intense you are in your workouts. I coach regular folks. I have thirty-year-old’s, forty-year-old’s, fifty-year-old’s, sixty-year-old’s. . . The intensity of the workouts drops off as people age. They allow it to.”

I’m no Dave Scott or Haile Gebrselassie or Sara Hall, but I am living proof that mere mortals too can extend their peak performance years into their forties if they let the chatter about age go in one ear and out the other. Having raced my first Ironman at thirty-one, I completed my fastest Ironman at forty-eight. Having raced my first marathon at twenty-eight, I completed my fastest marathon at forty-six. And having raced my first 10K at twelve, I completed my fastest one at forty-nine. I repeat: Assume nothing!

Like a lot of children of the 1970s, I grew up mostly outdoors. Perhaps it was different in the big city, but in the piney woods of southern New Hampshire where I was raised, kids had to find their own fun, yet there was plenty of fun to be found if you looked hard enough. Street hockey, capture the flag, mud football, ultimate frisbee, sledding, H-O-R-S-E, various war games—I and my brothers and the scads of other young’uns in our neighborhood were always on the move in one way or another.

What made me different from, and even more active than, my hyperkinetic peers was my father, who was quite the fitness buff. In 1983, when I was eleven, he ran his first marathon. The next day I went out and ran six miles—monkey see, monkey do. Two days later, I did it again, and so on.

The following year, my old man—who had served as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam—wrote a book called Get Tough: The U.S. Special Forces Physical Conditioning Program. If you’re able to track down a copy, you’ll find in it a few photos of a boy with a platinum blond bowl cut assisting the author in demonstrating various exercises. That blond boy was me, and I not only helped my dad with the photoshoot but I also completed the full twelve-week workout program despite having zero interest in joining the military.

In short, I got a lot of exercise in my youth, and as a result I was quite fit. Having never known anything else, I did not fully appreciate my fitness, however, until years later, when I lost it. Not some of it but all of it, and not gradually but all at once.

October 6, 2020, was the day I first noticed something was wrong. At forty-nine years old, I was as fit as I’d ever been, having recently completed a 10K time trial in 33:25 and plotting a bid for a duathlon national championship age-group title. Long covid tossed those ambitions out the window, but I held on to as much fitness as I could for as long as I could, continuing to run (albeit slowly, and never very far) for another twelve weeks until I was forced to pull the plug.

As recently as October 2021, more than a year into my long-haul journey, I was walking four miles a day and lifting weights four about twenty minutes most days. Nugatory as these activities were compared to my former regimen, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were holding back my recovery, as I continued to feel like shit pretty much 24/7. Then one day it occurred to me that every athlete I knew of who had recovered from long covid had gone for an extended period of time without engaging in physical exertion of any kind, in most cases involuntarily, being bedridden. Having nothing to lose, I stopped walking and lifting weights, becoming wholly sedentary for the first time in my half-century on earth.

It’s now been ten weeks since I took that drastic measure, enough time to lose what fitness remained in me after nine months without running. The jury’s still out on whether the measure is doing any good. Most days my long-covid symptoms are severe enough that whatever else is going on inside my body passes unnoticed. Recently, though, I experienced a momentary upswing in my health that allowed me, again for the first time in my life, to feel what it’s really like to be totally out of shape, and let me tell you, relative to being very fit, it feels awful—worse than I could have imagined, especially at my age.

One thing I noticed in the early days of my plunge into hardcore endurance training in my late twenties was that the fitter I got, the better I felt, not just during exercise but all day every day. When I was fit enough to run 50 miles over mountains without stopping, I felt like a man who could run 50 miles over mountains without stopping. Even when sitting quietly with a book in my hand I was aware of an inner vitality so volcanically intense I half-believed I could open a window and fly away like Peter Pan. Having lost this precious feeling, probably forever, I look back on it now as the single greatest benefit of being aerobically fit. Strangely, though, nobody ever talks about it. Consequently, those who have never been aerobically fit don’t know what they’re missing out on.

Think about it: What tempts people to try psychoactive drugs? The promise of an amazing high, that’s what! So why don’t we use the same promise—minus the downside—to tempt the sedentary into trying aerobic exercise? Do me a favor: The next time you find yourself in conversation with a couch potato at a social gathering, and the topic of your endurance hobby comes up, casually mention how wonderful it feels to be aerobic fit. See how they react, and report back to me. This could be the start of a game-changing “Just Say Yes” campaign!

In 2020, the journal Psychology published a study on device dependency in runners. Pierluigi Diotaiuti and colleagues at the University of Cassino and Southern Lazio gathered information about training device usage from 111 runners, who also completed a questionnaire designed to assess device dependency, which was scored on the basis of how individual subjects answered questions including this one: “If you could not have your device with you, would you still train?”

I now put a slightly different question to you: If every modern sports watch on earth suddenly vanished, leaving behind only old-school stopwatches to use in your training, would your training be negatively affected? In other words, do you feel you need your current training device to train effectively? I’m too lazy to turn this question into a formal survey, but I think it’s safe to assume that a substantial percentage of athletes would answer in the affirmative, which makes me sad. As a coach, I believe every athlete should be able to train just as effectively without a fancy sports tracker as they do with it. Why? Because sports trackers are only truly useful to athletes who don’t actually need them.

Don’t hang up! All will be made clear if you bear with me. Let’s start with an analogy. Consider the thesaurus—that big compendium of words with similar meanings. A thesaurus can be a lifesaver for writers who, in the process of composing a blog post or whatever, suddenly forget a word they know, or who wish to avoid overusing a word in a certain context by mixing things up with a synonym. As useful as it is, however, the thesaurus does not have the power to turn a bad writer into a good one. In fact, the best use this resource is made by the best writers—those who could get by just fine without it. When bad writers lean on the thesaurus, you can tell—the words they choose leap off the page like mad libs, not quite fitting. Skillful writers are more in control of their thesaurus usage, rarely pulling from it a word that wasn’t already part of their working vocabulary.

It’s the same with smartwatches. Almost by definition, an athlete who depends on their device to pace their workouts and races is not good at pacing. Worse, these same athletes are actually being held back from becoming good at pacing by this very dependency. I’ll give you one specific example of what I’m talking about, self-plagiarized from my new book On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit:

Amir completed a set of speed intervals on his indoor bike. Minutes later my phone notified me that the workout had been uploaded. When I analyzed the data, I saw a massive spike in power at the start of each interval before Amir settled back into the correct wattage zone. Knowing the answer, I asked Amir what was behind those crazy spikes. Can you guess? Bingo! Noticing a lag between the time he started each interval and the time his bike’s power meter caught up with the change in output, Amir had pedaled like mad in the first few seconds in a desperate effort to produce the desired number, then slowed down on dis- covering he’d overshot the target—not once but twelve times in a row. Amir’s a smart guy. On some level, he knew his power meter was lying to him, giving him yesterday’s news, so to speak. Yet he acted as though he believed the number on the computer was more real than what his body was doing.

Like most device-dependent athletes, Amir probably thought his power meter was helping him pace his workout, and in a limited sense it was. But in a greater sense it was holding him back, sort of like how training wheels hold a young cyclist back from learning how to stay upright on their own. There are no good cyclists who need training wheels, and an athlete who depends on their training device for pacing will never be able to pace as effectively as one who doesn’t.

Again, my point is not that training devices are bad and should never be used by anyone. I’m merely saying that these gadgets are most useful to those who don’t actually need them. I’ll now give you a personal example of non-dependent smartwatch usage: In January 2020 I started the Irvine Half Marathon with the goal of averaging 5:51 per mile and finishing in 1:16:50. I was confident in this goal because I’d been running competitively for 30 years by this point, and I knew what my body could do. However, the workout performances upon which my goal was based had been achieved in regular racing flats, whereas on race day I wore carbon-plated super shoes, and I quickly discovered that the high-tech footwear made 5:51 per mile feel more like 5:56 per mile. Had I trusted my Garmin more than I did my ability to read my body, I probably would have stuck with my original goal pace. (Actually, that’s not quite true, as my original goal pace was itself based on my ability to read my body.) But as it was, I went ahead and ran 5:46 miles, which felt like 5:51’s, finishing with a pleasantly surprising time of 1:15:30.

Here we have an example of a sophisticated and effective use of a smartwatch that only an athlete who didn’t really need the device could pull off. I define pacing as the art of finding your limit, and in this race I found my limit in the only way an athlete ever can, which is by knowing subjectively what the body can do and then doing it through precise self-regulation. As a coach, I want every athlete to reach this level of pacing mastery, and it drives me nuts that so many athletes are willingly allowing device dependency to stand in the way.

The advantage I had as compared to many athletes is that I had accumulated many years of experience in training and racing without a smartwatch before these products came on market. Consequently, I was the boss of my chosen gadgets from day one, as one must be to benefit from their use. If I were the king of endurance sports and could rule athlete behavior by fiat, I would require that each beginner train for one full year with nothing more than an old-fashion stopwatch before they are allowed to begin training with a smartwatch. I’m confident this rule would go a long way toward preventing device dependency and accelerate the acquisition of pacing mastery. Everything you need to pace skillfully lies inside your body and mind, but it’s possible that only by forcing yourself to depend on these things only will you discover that you can.

Interested in learning more about pacing? My new book, On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit will guide you step by step toward pacing mastery. Click here for a free sample chapter of On Pace, and here to purchase a copy.

For the past several months I’ve been writing a book that will serve as the official study guide for the 80/20 Endurance coach certification program. As you might expect, working on this project has afforded me the opportunity to reflect deeply on my philosophy of coaching. It’s impossible to summarize this philosophy in a pithy epigram, but I can’t resist trying. Are you ready? Here it is:

The job of the coach is to never let an athlete take two steps in the wrong direction.

Now, if these eighteen words truly encapsulated the essence of good coaching, I wouldn’t have to devote another 800 words to explaining them, but they don’t, so I will.

From a remote perspective, the entire history of endurance sports training can be seen as one big trial-and-error learning experiment. In the early days of running, swimming, cycling, and other endurance disciplines, nobody knew what the hell they were doing as far as training was concerned. Athletes tried all kinds of things in search of better performance, learning as they went.

One such athlete was Walter George, an Englishman who is remembered as the greatest amateur runner of the late 1880s and early 1890s. Early in George’s running career, his training regimen consisted almost entirely of 100 daily repetitions of a modified form of running in place that he called 100-Up. On the strength of this goofily minimalist program, George set amateur world records of 4:19.4 for the mile and 14:42.8 for three miles. His success led to widespread adoption of the 100-Up exercise, whose propagation was aided by the enthusiastic evangelism of its inventor. In an article he wrote in 1908, George expressed his “supreme faith” in the exercise, which he labeled “the century’s best.”

As the years went by and improvements became harder to come by, George added more and more actual running to his routine. Here is an example of George’s training in 1882, when he was twenty-six, as originally printed in the 1902 book Training.

Date                Morning                                              Afternoon

18 Oct.            1,000 yds and 1 mile slow                  880 yds at ¾ speed

19 Oct.            1½ miles slow                                      Very wet. Did not run.

20 Oct.            1,000 yds at ¾ speed                        800 yds and 350 yds fast

21 Oct.            1,000 yds and 700 yds                        —–

22 Oct.            800 yds at ¾ speed                           1,000 yds slow

23 Oct.            1,000 yds and 700 yds slow              —–

24 Oct.            1¼ miles and 1,000 yds slow             —–

The reason today’s elite runners no longer train this way is that the trial-and-error process continued. Athletes kept trying different things, and when a new thing seemed to work better than an old thing, the latter was discarded in favor of the former. In many cases, athletes made their own training methods obsolete through n=1 testing. As I write this article on New Year’s Day 2022, endurance training methods have become highly optimized at a population level. Yet endurance training remains a never-ending experiment for each individual athlete. While today’s proven best practices are broadly optimal for everyone, each moment in each athlete’s journey toward full realization of potential is sufficiently unique that the best way forward is seldom obvious. There’s always a degree of creative problem solving involved.

In endurance training, in other words, you’re not doing things so much as trying things. When you try something that doesn’t work out, that’s like taking a step in the wrong direction, away from full realization of potential. That’s okay. A coach shouldn’t beat himself up for sending an athlete one step in the wrong direction. But if the coach fails to recognize that the athlete has gone off course and to take immediate corrective action, that’s on him. If one step in the wrong direction is only human, two steps is unforgivable. It’s kind of like that old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

For example, suppose a coach is working with an athlete who keeps hitting the wall in marathons, and she’s trying to figure out what to do differently in the athlete’s training to break the pattern. Her intuition tells her that overdistance long runs (i.e., runs longer than 26.2 miles) might be the answer, but it turns out this method leaves the runner completely wrecked even when the overdistance runs are planned and executed carefully. That’s one step in the wrong direction. If the coach then insists on continuing with the method, perhaps out some Trumpian inability to acknowledge error, that’s too steps in the wrong direction. A better coach in this situation will acknowledge the error and try something else—perhaps back-to-back long runs, or depletion runs, or extra mileage spread evenly across the week. Any one of these alternative methods might also turn out to be a step in the wrong direction, and that’s okay too. As long as the coach never stops trying and never allows the athlete to take two steps in the wrong direction, it is inevitable that the athlete’s full athletic potential will be realized eventually.

Did you ever play the Hot and Cold game as a kid? As a refresher, one player hides an object and the other player wanders around with their eyes closed, trying to find it. When the second player moves toward the hidden object, the first player lets them know by says “Warmer,” and when the second player moves away from it, the first player says, “Colder.” In this way, despite being blinded, the second player inevitably lays hands on the hidden object.

Endurance training is like that. In this analogy, the second player’s closed eyes represent the coach’s blindness to the best way forward, the hidden object represents full realization of athletic potential, and the first player’s verbal cues represent the results, positive and negative, of the things coaches try with athletes in search of maximum performance. It doesn’t take a genius to guide athletes to the hidden object that is optimal performance in this matter. In fact, it takes a moron to fail!

Pacing is such a familiar part of the sport of running that it’s often taken for granted. Few runners spend much time thinking about pacing. Not coincidentally, most runners also aren’t very good at pacing. The purpose of this article is to explain what pacing is. Having a clear understanding of this vital running skill will aid your efforts to master it. Sound good? Terrific! Let’s get started.

Imagine you are standing before a ditch. On the other side of the ditch is a piping hot burrito, and you happen to be quite hungry. Thus, you feel strongly incentivized to leap the ditch. The only problem is that the ditch is wide enough that you’re not certain you can make it to the other side. Should you risk it or should you not?

In this hypothetical scenario, your ultimate decision on whether to jump is based on internal knowledge of your leaping ability, particularly the limit of your jumping range. Pacing is very much the same. During each race, runners continuously, tacitly assess the sustainability of their present effort. These assessments are made against internal knowledge of the runner’s personal limit, which exactly parallels the knowledge of your personal leaping ability that you draw upon in deciding whether to attempt to jump the ditch. In other words, pacing is just another way in which humans regulate goal-directed behavior based on internal knowledge of their physical limits.

The difference is that one’s limit is far less clear-cut in a running race than it is in a ditch jump. In the latter scenario, you get one shot, and either you can or you can’t bridge the gap. But a marathon consists of approximately 55,000 small leaps, and to achieve the goal of covering the full distance in the least time possible, every single one of these 55,000 baby jumps must be paced in a manner that contributes to this goal. Nevertheless, the formula for success is the same. Whether you’re trying to leap a ditch so you can gobble a piping hot burrito or you’re trying to complete a marathon in the least time possible so you can brag about it on Strava, success results from being right about your physical limit.

Now you see why most runners aren’t very good at pacing. Yet some runners are really good at it, able to finish every race knowing they couldn’t have gone any faster with alternative pacing decisions. What makes these runners different? In my experience, pacing masters are more focused and mindful in assessing the sustainability of their present effort. All runners are conscious of their effort level when running, but whereas most runners have a passive relationship to this sensation, pacing masters actively study their effort perceptions, and they do so not just here and there but consistently, and as a result they get better and better at interpreting what they are feeling, and their intuitions about how sustainable their efforts are become more and more accurate.

To some runners, this explanation is highly unsatisfying. They want the secret to better pacing to be some simple hack or device feature that essentially takes the responsibility of making good pacing decisions off their shoulders. Instead, what I’m telling you is that pacing masters “just know” whether to speed up, slow down, or hold steady based on what they’re feeling. If I could give you a more satisfying explanation of what it takes to pace effectively without lying to you, I would. But the cold, hard truth is that everything you need to know to pace yourself effectively is contained in your effort perceptions, and there is no substitute.

The good news is that runners don’t fall into ditches when they make pacing errors. The difference between pacing masters and other runners is not that pacing masters are incapable of pacing errors. Rather, it’s that they learn more from their errors because they are paying closer attention to what they’re doing. That’s why it’s so important to be focused and mindful in studying your effort perceptions during races and hard workouts. Doing so stimulates conditional learning, enabling you to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over. How does a runner “just know” to back off their pace just a hair 8.2 miles into a half marathon? Because they have experienced a similar level of effort before with about 4.9 miles of running left ahead of them and it didn’t turn out well, and on a visceral level they never forgot it.

Understand that there is seldom any conceptual thinking involved in such decisions, much less calculation. The knowledge you’re using in such moments is somatic. In much the same way an experienced ditch jumper doesn’t have to measure the gap to know whether he can leap it, the mindful runner intuits the sustainability of their present effort on a largely tacit level, not by magic but simply as a result of having paid attention during thousands of past runs.

You can do this! And I’m going to help you. My new book, On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit will guide you step by step toward pacing mastery. Click here for a free sample chapter of On Pace, and here to purchase a copy.

Call me strange, but I love building training plans. It’s one of my favorite activities, right up there with training itself. That’s why I got together with David Warden to create 80/20 Endurance, which, as you well know, exists for the primary purpose of creating training plans for endurance athletes of all types and abilities.

Nevertheless, I recognize that training plans aren’t perfect. They have a fixed duration, a fixed weekly workout schedule, a fixed volume progression — everything about them is fixed. We try to overcome this limitation by creating lots of different options so that any given athlete is able to select a plan that’s close to perfect. But close to perfect still isn’t perfect.

Some degree of post-selection customization is almost always required to take a readymade training plan from almost perfect to perfect. The most common issues are as follow: 

  • The weekly workout schedule doesn’t match up with the athlete’s life schedule (e.g., the athlete prefers to do long rides or runs on Saturdays, but the plan schedules them on Sundays). 
  • The plan is X weeks long, but the athlete’s “A” race is either fewer or more than X weeks away. In other words, the plan is either too short or too long. 
  • The athlete wishes to do one or more “B” races during the plan period, but these aren’t necessarily included in the plan. 
  • The athlete will be unable to complete some of the workouts in the plan due to expected travel or some other scheduling conflict. 

Let’s take a brief look at how to handle each of these scenarios.

Adjusting the Weekly Workout Structure

In most cases, this is the easiest type of adjustment to make. A couple of key principles will help you modify your training plan’s weekly workout structure to fit your routine. 

  1. Don’t schedule hard workouts back to back.
  2. Don’t schedule similar workouts back to back.

The first principle is the hard/easy rule, which stipulates that challenging workouts should not be scheduled on consecutive days. When shuffling workouts around, be sure to insert at least one lighter day of training between days containing long endurance sessions, high-intensity intervals, or any other workouts expected to result in a high level of fatigue.

The other key principle is balance, according to which the various workout types should be distributed as evenly as possible throughout the week. Suppose you’re a triathlete who swims, bikes, and runs three times each per week. In adjusting your training plan to fit your schedule, avoid setting up your week so that you swim on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, bike on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and run on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday! Obviously, this is an extreme example, but milder forms of workout “bunching” should be avoided as well.

Adjusting Plan Length

Suppose you’ve selected a training plan and aligned its end date with the date of your event, but there’s a gap between now and the plan’s start date. How should you fill the time? If you haven’t been training recently, or if you’ve been training at a lower level than will be required of you in Week 1, the answer is obvious: use the time to gradually ready yourself for a smooth transition to the plan. If you’re already fit enough to handle Week 1, use the time instead to focus on another priority that will help set you up for success. Examples of such alternative priorities are strength training, technique work, and dietary improvements.

In cases where you don’t have enough time to complete the entire training plan before your race, the simplest solution is just to skip the first part. If your plan is 17 weeks long, for example, and your race is 15 weeks away, go ahead and start at Week 3. But this solution only works if your recent training is similar to the weeks you’re skipping. If it’s not, you might be getting in over your head or setting yourself up for injury.

When you find yourself in this type of situation, your best move is to modify the first few weeks of the plan, beginning at the point where you pick it up, in such a way as to give yourself a chance to catch up to the training. Specifically, you’ll want to reduce the overall volume and the difficulty level of key workouts so that you’re not required to make big leaps in training load. Returning to the example I gave above, suppose Week 3 of the plan includes a high-intensity interval workout and a tempo workout, but your recent training has consisted entirely of low-intensity work. A sensible adjustment here would be to replace the interval workout with a fartlek-type session containing just a handful of brief surges and to replace the tempo workout with a “cruise intervals” workout containing a few short efforts at threshold intensity instead of one or two big blocks.

Adding “B” Races

Scheduling “B” races can be either simple or complicated, depending on when these events fall within your training plan and how many you wish to add. The ideal timing for such events 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 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 these cases, dialing back the training that precedes and follows the event is likely to result in too much time away from harder training, especially when the week in question comes right before or right after a designated recovery week. To avoid this issue, make your adjustments more nuanced with half-recovery weeks (i.e., weeks in which the first few days are heavy and the last few are light or vice versa) and partial recovery weeks (i.e., weeks in which the training load is reduced, but only slightly). Consider both the logic of your plan’s training load variation and your own sense of what your body can handle in making these types of adjustments.

Things get even more complicated when you want to do more than one “B” race. But the same principles apply, with the basic idea being to preserve the plan’s intended balance of heavier training periods (typically two to three weeks of gradually increasing load) and lighter periods (typically one week of recovery every third or fourth week that’s about 20% lower in volume than the preceding week).

Planning for Anticipated Missed Training

When you know ahead of time that your training is going to be restricted during a certain period, your best strategy is to bookend this period with sensibly modified training. For example, suppose you are following a triathlon training plan and you are planning to take your family on vacation to Yosemite National Park during Week 9. In this seven-day period, you will be able to squeeze in a little running but your swim and bike training will be paused.

In this scenario, it would be wise to reduce your run training and increase your swim and bike training in the week that immediately precedes your vacation as well as in the week that immediately follows it. These adjustments will not only minimize any negative effect of the trip on your swim and bike fitness but should also help you worry less about it.

The Future of Plan Customization

Some athletes are more comfortable than others in using the guidelines I’ve just shared to customize their readymade training plans. And, to be honest, even some athletes who are relatively comfortable making their own adjustments don’t do it quite as well as an experienced coach would. It sure would be nice if there were another option — some kind of app that creates training plans that are not only fully customized to you at the outset but also adapts over time based on changes in your availability, fitness, and goals.

Guess what: this option now exists! The app is called PACE, and I am proud to be one of the coaches involved in creating the adaptive training plans it provides. Powered by TrainingPeaks technology, PACE makes exactly the same planning decisions I or another experienced coach would make on an athlete’s behalf. The app is for runners only initially, but plans for other athlete types will be added soon. Learn more about PACE here


Recently I had a disturbing experience on social media. I know, I know. Join the club, right? But This one’s worth sharing, I believe.

Let me start by saying that I’m not naïve in these matters. I’ve been aware for some time that social media is a cesspool of idiocy and viciousness. That’s why I decided last year to drastically curtal my activity on the various platforms. But I held back from taking the even more drastic step of closing my accounts because I kind of need them for business reasons. This left the door open for the mindless savagery of the medium to seek me out, which is precisely what happened last week.

It began innocently enough. An athlete whose name I will withhold for his protection was reading my book The Endurance Diet when he came upon the following passage: “As with workouts, nutrition intake is not necessary during all races. Studies suggest that consuming fluid and carbohydrate enhances performance only in races lasting longer than about an hour. So don’t be that guy or gal wearing a fluid belt in a 5K run!”

Amused by these droll phrases, the athlete shared them on social media. Except he didn’t post the whole passage. Only the last sentence was made public, and let’s just say it was not well received. Minutes after my decontextualized words were broadcast behind my back, my phone started blowing up. After some initial confusion, I came to the alarming realization that I had become the subject of an unprovoked attack by a virtual mob of outraged athletes accusing me of elitism, judgmentalism, and snobbery.

In an odd sort of way, this gratuitous modern-day stoning reminded me of a scene in Megha Majumdar’s novel A Burning. It takes place in the fictional Indian Village of Kokilhat, where a visiting politician watches in horror as a Hindu mob brutally murders a Muslim man falsely accused of killing a cow and eating its beef. By no means am I equating the severity of this imagined incident with that of my online character assassination, but the underlying instinct is identical. The selfsame delirious, hive-minded lust to harm the outsider that drove a horde of bigoted villagers to drag an innocent religious minority down from the thatched roof of his family hut and crush his skull under their boots drove an internet posse of aggrieved fluid-belt wearers to collectively cancel me for . . . for what exactly?

Elitism, yes, but what flavor? It’s not entirely clear, but I have an idea. Had any of my verbal assailants taken the time to level a formal charge against me, I believe I would have been accused of trying to shame slower runners for being slow. This conjecture is based on a reasonable assumption that the practice of wearing a fluid belt in 5K races is perceived as a symbol of being a slower runner. It’s absurd, I know, but less absurd than the only alternative I can think of, which is that, in their eagerness to take offense, my hypersensitive would-be cancellers chose to interpret the orphaned sentence from my book as some form of body shaming, as if a certain fraction of the human population is born with fluid belts attached to their middles and how dare I try to make these poor folks feel “less than” for it!

So, let’s go ahead and suppose that my words were indeed interpreted as an expression of speed elitism, or looking down on slower athletes for being slower. By sheer coincidence, at the precise moment I discovered that I was being burned in effigy in cyberspace, I was working on a blog article titled “How to Impress Your Coach,” in which I explained that good coaches are impressed by two things only—smart decisions and grit—and are not impressed by strong workout numbers. “Currently I coach a half-dozen athletes,” I wrote, “ranging from twenty-something elites to fifty-something mid-packers, and all six of them impress me with approximately equal frequency in these two ways.”

This doesn’t sound like something a speed elitist would say, does it? Nor does anything else I’ve written in the nearly thirty years I’ve been writing about endurance sports. To the contrary, if you were to ask a random athlete who has read and understood all thirty of my published books to describe my shtick, they would probably say something along the lines of, “Matt is all about encouraging everyday athletes to give themselves permission to pursue the sport they love with the same dedication as the elites.” And they’d be right!

Heck, the title of my next book, coauthored with Ben Rosario, is Run Like a Pro (Even If You’re Slow)! Does that sound like a book that a pair of speed elitists would write? No! And if you’re still not convinced that I make no distinction whatsoever between faster and slower athletes, check out my Twitter page, where for the past two years the pinned tweet has read as follows: “Talent should not determine how far you take your athletic journey. Passion should.”

Perhaps the best summation of my professional mission comes not from me but from Knox Robinson,  as quoted in my memoir, Life Is a Marathon. Here’s the relevant passage:

“When I talked to you in New York,” I began, my eyes on my phone to verify that it was recording, “you told me that you created Black Roses NYC because, in so many words, you wanted people in the urban running community to take running seriously—to take it all the way. Can I infer from this that you feel runners who don’ttest their limits are missing out on something?”

Knox sat with the question for a while before he answered. “Yeah, I do feel kind of bad for the folks who don’t take the whole trip,” he said eventually. “Running has unfathomable riches to share. Someone who endeavors to put together the full modern runner’s toolkit and really understand the marathon, beyond just completing it and getting a finisher’s medal, ends up learning more, I think, about himself or herself and what it means to be human. That’s what those tools are for.”

Which brings us back to the statement that I was recently pilloried for on social media. It is a simple scientific fact that carrying and consuming fluid during a 5K running event is completely unnecessary, and not only unnecessary but self-sabotaging, from a performance perspective. It’s fair to assume that most runners who wear fluid belts in short races aren’t aware of this fact. What’s not fair is accusing me of elitism for educating these runners and, more broadly, for encouraging runners of all abilities to pursue maximum performance and to take advantage of proven methods for doing so.

There is such a thing as reverse elitism. It manifests in a very of ways, one of which is a tendency to presume that people who have more of something desirable than you do (money, beauty, education, athletic ability, whatever) look down on those who have less of it. Elitism is real, and it is lame. I have zero respect for the pimple-faced trolls on who brand slower runners “hobby joggers” with such smarmy disdain. But reverse elitism is equally lame and pervasive, and I have no more respect for the passive-aggressive social media vigilantes who baselessly lumped me in with the letsrun trolls than I have for the trolls themselves. The point of this 1,200-word rant? Don’t be lame!

I once coached a runner who had a strong desire to impress me. Every now and then during our weekly FaceTime catchups he would ask me, in reference to a recent strong workout performance, “Were you impressed?” or else he would say, in reference to a recent workout in which he had overreached and blown up, “I wanted to impress you.”

I felt two ways about these moments. On the one hand, I recognized the runner’s desire to impress me as a sign of respect. Generally speaking, we try to impress those whose good opinion we value. On the other hand, it troubled me that the runner assumed I or any coach would be impressed with fast workout times. To me it betrayed a poor understanding of what coaches—good coaches, anyway—want to see from their athletes. So eventually I spoke up, explaining to the runner that, short of breaking a world record, there was nothing he could possibly do performance-wise in a workout that would impress me and he should stop trying.

In hindsight, I regret saying the part about world records, because even that wouldn’t have impressed me in the way this runner wished. The way I see it, putting up strong numbers in workouts is, above all, evidence of a natural gift, and a natural gift is just that: a gift. To the extent that I am capable of being impressed by fast running, I am impressed by the gift giver (God, nature, whatever), not the recipient.

I don’t mean to suggest that athletes should lack any desire to please their coaches, or that coaches should never be pleased by anything an athlete does. After all, the desire to please one’s coach is a source of motivation, and maintaining a high level of motivation is critical to success in endurance training. But crushing workouts is not the proper way for athletes to please their coaches because, again, it depends on something that is largely outside both the coach’s and the athlete’s control, which is the athlete’s natural ability level.


Currently I coach a half-dozen athletes, ranging from twenty-something elites to fifty-something mid-packers, and all six of them impress me with approximately equal frequency. “How?” you ask. In two ways: by making smart decisions and by showing grit. With few exceptions, whenever my reflexive emotional response to something an athlete has done contains elements of admiration, respect, and pride, the athlete has either made a smart decision or shown grit.

Smart decisions impress me because few athletes make smart decisions consistently, and few things have a greater positive impact on fitness and athletic development. I’m reminded here of something Coach Meseret tells Michael Crawley in Crawley’s delightful book Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia: “The successful ones are the ones who watch with their eyes and think with their minds before they move their legs. The ones who run on emotion only can’t make it.” I agree, which is why training athletes to make smart decisions consistently is a major point of emphasis in my coaching, and why I’m pleased when I see an athlete make a good a decision in a situation where previously they might have made a bad one.

As for grit, who isn’t impressed by a healthy display of resilience? All endurance athletes have some measure of grit, but a few have uncommon grit, and the best coaches are able to coax athletes’ inner toughness out of them. To be clear, masochistic or macho displays of toughness do nothing for me, but when an athlete does something like find a parking garage in which to perform a set of hill reps when an ice storm makes it impossible for her to run in the usual places (true story), my heart swells with pride.

I know I’m not the only coach who feels this way. If you have a coach, and you have the kind of healthy coach-athlete relationship that motivates you to make your coach proud, don’t try to impress him or her with fabulous workout performances. While every coach is happy when an athlete’s training is going well, good coaches don’t give out gold stars for great workout performances. Focus instead on making smart decisions and being gritty when grit is called for. Nothing else you might do in your training will make your coach happier, and quite apart from that, being smart and gritty will benefit your long-term athletic development far more than showing off in select workouts.

The first adult sports camp I participated in was a Multisport School of Champions event hosted in San Diego by Triathlete publisher John Duke and eight-time Ironman world champion Paula Newby-Fraser way back in 1996. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to take part in many more triathlon and running camps, and I remember each experience both vividly and fondly.

I’m hardly unique in this respect. No one ever regrets attending an endurance training camp. There’s a dreamlike quality about these athletic idylls, all-too-brief escapes from everyday reality centered on a passion shared equally by all partakers. That’s why I decided to get involved in the camp-hosting business myself. Do you want your 2022 to include an experience you will treasure for the rest of your days? Click here to learn more about the three 80/20 Endurance/Endeavorun camps we’ve lined up for next year.

If you need more persuading, read on. What follows is a “lost chapter” of my book Running the Dream: One Summer Living, Training, and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age. It describes events in my life on August 19, 2017, two days earlier I’d strained a hip abductor tendon during a workout with the Northern Arizona Elite professional running team in Flagstaff, Arizona. In the wake of this calamity, team member Stephanie Bruce invited me to participate in the adult running camp that she and her husband, Ben, were hosting that weekend, as a way to take my mind off my injury. Enjoy!

Cast of Characters

Nataki = My wife

Coach Ben = NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario

AJ = AJ Gregg, strength coach and PT for NAZ Elite

Wes Gregg = AJ’s brother and colleague

Kellyn = NAZ Elite member Kellyn Taylor


50 Days to Chicago

I went for another long walk with Nataki this morning, my injured groin grabbing warningly a few times as we went.

“The Chicago Marathon is fifty days away and I can’t even walk without pain,” I pouted.

Nataki laughed, which wasn’t the reaction I expected or wanted. But her attention was not on me but on our dog, Queenie, who’d lunged at a bird.

When we got back to the house I emailed Coach Ben to request that we meet as soon as possible after his return from Malaysia to discuss the way forward in my training. I killed the next hour like the injured fake pro runner I was, sandwiching a round of rehab exercises between contrast-therapy treatments, and then drove to Hypo2 for yet another appointment with AJ.

“How was dinner?” he asked as he led us into his office.

Nataki and I raved about the previous evening’s meal at the Cottage: artisan greens salad with beets and fennel root, cold smoked salmon tartine, venison for Nataki, and flank steak for me. AJ was very pleased.

“So, what’s the report?” he asked, abruptly shifting the topic of conversation to my groin.

I told him about my less-than-encouraging my walk, realizing as I spoke that I sounded like a teenager confessing to a joyride in daddy’s Lexus.

“Well, then, you’re not running tomorrow,” AJ said flatly.

Swallowing the urge to protest, I dutifully ran the cold laser on my reddened inner thigh for 10 minutes. When this was done, AJ put me back on the treatment table and repeated the same tests he’d used to diagnose the injury two days ago. I bent my left leg sharply and swung it out to the side like a dog watering a fire hydrant. AJ then applied gentle hand pressure to the knee, his eyebrows raised inquisitively. I shook my head, so he applied a little more pressure. I shook my head again and AJ pressed down even harder.

“Huh,” he said. “Your range of motion is back to 100 percent.”

I pounced.

“What harm can it do me to run for a few minutes tomorrow, really slow,

just to see how it feels?” I asked.

“None, as long as you stop right away if there’s pain above a three out of ten. You might even find that running loosens it up a bit. But to be straight with you, I’ll be happy if you’re running again in eight days.”

In the afternoon, I returned to Hypo2 with Nataki for a classroom session with attendees of Steph and Ben’s running camp. The topic du jour was mental toughness.

“What I love about running is that it’s the only part of life where you get to choose how much you suffer,” Steph told the gathering. “And the more you are willing to suffer, the greater the reward.”

Ben Bruce chimed in from the wings: “It’s kind of a messed-up sport.”

“It is messed up,” Steph agreed soberly. A camper named Amanda raised her hand and asked Steph what she tells herself during difficult moments in a race.

“Well, I’m a huge Rocky fan,” Steph confessed, lightly blushing. “I think maybe it’s because Sylvester Stallone reminds me of my father. Anyway, I usually think of lines from Rocky movies. For example, in Rocky IV there’s the part where Rocky draws blood from Ivan Drago and his trainer tells him, ‘See? He’s a man just like you!’”

At four o’clock, we shuffled over to the strength and conditioning room for a group strength workout led by Wes Gregg. Ben explained that the exercises Wes was about to teach us would all be bodyweight movements we could do at home without equipment, or using household items for resistance.

“At home, I use my kids for some of this stuff,” he said. “I just have to decide if I want to lift the three-year-old or the two-year-old.” Pausing momentarily, he grinned with a sudden thought. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I did like Hercules and the bull and kept using them as weights as they got older? Imagine when Hudson is 18 and I’m like, ‘Come here, son. Daddy’s going to pick you up,’ and he’s like, ‘This is kind of weird.’”

I laughed like a man desperate for a laugh, much louder than anyone else in the room.

In the evening we gathered again, this time at Kellyn’s house, which sits alone at the end of a dirt road. I found my fellow campers in the backyard eating pizza and drinking beer and wine. After sunset we drifted over to an area where camp chairs had been arranged around a bonfire. Steph invited everyone to write down their A, B, and C goals on a notecard and then share them with the group.

When my turn came, I told my fellow campers I was training for the Chicago Marathon and that my C goal was to run my fastest marathon since my fastest marathon nine years ago, my B goal was to beat that nine-year-old personal best, and my A goal was to do something that made other runners believe they could achieve their own A goals. Next up was Donna, a 42-year-old Californian who started running just two years ago and has already completed six marathons. “I just love running so much,” she told me at the welcome dinner two nights back, “and I feel pressure to get as fast as I can before I’m too old.”

“I want to move to Flagstaff,” she said now. Everyone laughed. “No, I’m serious!” she protested.

One of the last to speak was Mary, who’d come all the way from eastern Canada despite being injured like me and unable to run. The instant she opened her mouth, her eyes filled and a soblike sound escaped her.

“I just want to run,” she said, “to be healthy. I’ve lost my passion and I want it back.”

I waited for the group’s attention to move on, then rose and walked over to where Mary was seated, crouching before her.

“It sounds like you’re feeling pretty hopeless,” I said. “I’ve been there before.”

“Can we take a little walk?” Mary asked.

“Sure, of course,” I said.

Mary stood and led me into the darkness away from the fire. When she was satisfied we were fully out of earshot, she opened up.

“I just turned 50,” she said, emotion overtaking her a second time. “I love Spanish culture and dance. I speak the language. That was my passion for a long time—Spanish dancing. But then I got away from it. That was okay, though, because I still had running. I’ve run most of my life. I love it. I’ve been pretty successful at it.”

“It’s a part of your identity,” I threw in.

“Right. But now I don’t even have that. I’m stuck in an endless cycle. I get injured. The winters are pretty brutal where I live, and by the time spring comes I’m way behind in my fitness. I spend the whole summer just catching up. Then I get hurt again. I’m getting older. I don’t have kids. I work from home, making competitive dance costumes. When I can’t run, things get pretty dark. I almost didn’t even come here. I thought, ‘What’s the point?’”

“I get it,” I said. “I haven’t been able to run for three days and I’m going nuts. Earlier today I was driving through town and I saw people out running and I thought—”

“—you don’t know how lucky you are,” Mary finished.

“Exactly,” I said. You know, I’m always a little annoyed when people give me advice based on the idea that whatever has been true for their lives will inevitably be true for mine as well. But I think it can’t hurt for you to know that there have been times when I was certain—absolutely convinced—that I would never be able to run another competitive marathon, or even jog ten miles without pain. And now here I am at 46, running almost as well as I ever have—until Wednesday, at least,” I laughed. There’s hope for you.”

“I know,” Mary said. “Thanks.”

I asked her if I could give her a hug, if only for my sake, and she said I could.

“Are you glad you came, though?” I said as I held her.

“Yeah,” she said. “I am.”

We returned to the circle, where Steph had the campers write down their greatest fear, share it with the group if they were comfortable doing so, and toss into the bonfire.


Ready to experience some camp magic of your own? Click here.

Fifty years ago, a runner who had been doing all of his recent training before the sun rose shifted to a new schedule that had him running later in the morning. To his surprise, his first several daylight runs felt harder than normal, and it took him longer to complete his usual routes. (This was before speed and distances devices existed, so completion times were the only practical means of measuring performance away from the track.)

The runner (let’s call him Bob) couldn’t help but wonder what was behind these sudden changes. He even briefly entertained the thought that he wasn’t good at running in the sun and should go back to predawn training. But then he caught himself, laughing inwardly at his momentary loss of reason. Running is running, he remembered. Whatever might be different between running in the dark and running by daylight, that difference couldn’t possibly be more than superficial. Instead of wasting energy worrying about it, Bob realized, he should just keep running and trust that his body would soon adjust. So that’s what he did, and that’s what happened, and Bob lived happily ever after.

Fifty years later, a different runner, Sally, had a similar experience. Like Bob, Sally did all of her training before the sun rose but then shifted to a new schedule that had her running later in the morning. To her surprise, she found it harder initially to stay in the intensity zones dictated to her by her Garmin Fenix 6, which reinforced this perception by telling her that all of her runs were “unproductive.” Sally became so alarmed by the situation that she hurried online to share her concerns in an athlete discussion forum, initiating a lively thread in which other athletes traded theories about what might be wrong and what Sally ought to do to fix it.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the growing problem of overdiagnosis in medicine, sports medicine in particular. An example of my recent reading is an educational review published a couple of years back in the British Medical Journal under the title, “Preventing Overdiagnosis and the Harms of Too Much Sport and Exercise Medicine.” In it, authors Daniel Friedman of Monash University and Karim Khan of the University of British Columbia describe the emergence of a sports medicine establishment that empowers clinicians to turn athletes into patients the moment they experience any pain beyond the norm. The four key elements of this system, according to Friedman and Khan, are 1) the belief among clinicians that more intervention yields better outcomes, 2) so-called diagnosis creep, whereby the definition of injury keeps expanding, 3) the widespread commercialization of sports medicine and injury treatment, and 4) increased accessibility of sports medicine and injury treatment services.

In short, we now have a system in which (to exaggerate only slightly) athletes experiencing pain automatically call the doctor, doctors automatically subject athletes to diagnostic tests, and diagnostic tests automatically find some “abnormality” that is automatically pegged as the cause of pain. Now, you might be thinking, “Where’s the harm? Better safe than sorry, right?” Wrong. The overmedicalization of athletic pain and injury causes a good deal of harm, and in more than one way.

For starters, medicine’s domination of pain and injury management systematically deprives athletes of agency, robs them of the ability to make their own decisions, trust their own perceptions, and feel in control of the process. Second, the imaging and other diagnostic tests used to slap labels on pain experiences are wildly unreliable, producing scandalous amounts of false positives. These false positives, in turn, cause stress and anxiety and lower outcome expectations, which become self-fulfilling. And to top it all off, the medical narratives in which diagnosis and treatment are couched—“Your tissues are degenerating because you have flawed biomechanics because your muscles are abnormally weak and tight—engender a sense of fragility in athletes that, too, is self-fulfilling.

In reaction to this anti-Hippocratic state of affairs, a movement toward “dediagnosis” has sprung up within the medical establishment. In a recent paper, two leading champions of this movement, Marianne Lea and Bjorn Morten Hofmann of the University of Oslo, declare, “We define dediagnosing as the removal of diagnoses that do not contribute to reducing the person’s suffering, i.e., when the person is better off without it.” And where nontraumatic sports injuries are concerned, the person is “better off without” a diagnosis most of the time. For example, in a 2021 study by Indian researchers, forty-four individuals with low-back pain were given MRI’s, after which half of them were given a factual description of the findings and half were told that the findings were normal regardless of the results. Six weeks later, according to the study’s authors, members of the first group had a “more negative perception of their spinal condition, increased catastrophization, decreased pain improvement, and poorer functional status.” That’s not exactly an endorsement of diagnosis.

At first blush, all of this business about athletic pain and overmedicalization might seem to have nothing to do with Bob and Sally, our two hypothetical runners who had difficulty adjusting to a shift in their daily run time. In fact, though, it has everything to do with it. Increasingly, the devices that athletes use to monitor and regulate their training are doing the same thing doctors and diagnostic tests do to athletes. As device features and metrics multiply (Garmin’s new “body battery” takes the cake), so does the number of things that can go wrong. Worse, at the same time these devices raise (mostly false) alarms, they insidiously drain athletes of their autonomy, lulling them into placing more and more trust into the plastic oracles on their wrists and less and less into their own perceptions and judgments.

Someone should do an experiment where sports devices are coded to randomly produce an alert message reading, “You’re having a terrible workout.” I’m willing to bet that a majority of today’s tech-dependent athletes would take this message seriously, rattled by it even if they’re in the middle of a terrific workout when it pops up. Laugh all you want, but this thought experiment is only marginally more absurd—and disturbing—than Garmin’s all-too-real “unproductive workout” alert message and a variety of other device features and metrics.

What bothers me most is the effect technology is having on athletes’ appreciation for the value of self-trust. The most self-trusting athletes are the most successful athletes, plain and simple. And self-trusting athletes have a high threshold for becoming alarmed. Like anyone else, they pay attention and notice things, but they shrug off most aberrations. When such an athlete is caught off guard by some unexpected difficulty like adjusting to a shift in their daily run time, they lose no sleep, telling themselves, “It’s probably nothing. I’ll give it a week to resolve itself, and if it doesn’t, then I’ll troubleshoot.”


In the old days, before the advent of sophisticated sports trackers, athletes had little choice but to allow small imperfections in their training to resolve themselves, or not. Nowadays, only the most self-trusting of athletes are able to resist sweating the small stuff, because temptations to do so have become almost atmospherically ubiquitous, a digital torrent of alerts and warnings and disappointing numbers to worry about shoved in our faces by our Garmins and Polars and Suuntos and Whatevers. It’s the training equivalent of an overzealous sports orthopedist moving into your home with all of his diagnostic equipment, hell-bent on finding something wrong with you.

Analytical reductionists—the kinds of people who are prone to say things like, “I’m trained in mathematical statistics and so inclined to examine numbers before making conclusions”—don’t understand this. They push back on the notion that there is harm in taking each and every device warning seriously. I call this hoarder logic. Have you ever tried to reason with a hoarder? It’s impossible! You choose an object from the pile and ask them if they really need to keep it. They respond with a pretty solid reason for keeping it. You then choose a second object from the pile—and a third, and a fourth—and they do the same, winning every battle yet losing the war. What makes hoarding a mental illness is not the hoarders’ specific reasons for holding onto individual objects but the very impulse to find a reason to keep all of them.

Analytical reductionists are the hoarders of the sports realm. They have solid reasons for taking each blip in the data stream seriously, but it is the underlying impulse to do this that’s the problem. Again, this impulse stems from a lack of self-trust. The ones who can’t stop troubleshooting are missing that assured sense of being in control of the overall process that makes the most mentally fit endurance athletes seem almost blasé to analytical reductionists, who look at them with mouths agape, wondering, “Don’t you even care? Shouldn’t you be worried?”

Regular readers of this blog will have noted that I’ve been beating the drum of device overdependence rather hard of late. Some of these readers might even suspect I have entered my crotchety old man phase, shaking my fist front my front-porch rocker and railing against technology, not because technology is so bad but because I’m weakening and beginning to feel left behind. That’s fair. If I were alone in my railing, this speculation might be worth entertaining, but in fact I am not alone. As I have taken pains to point out in past articles, growing numbers of scientists—the kind who are capable of big-picture, systemic thinking—are sounding the alarm as well. And it’s not just endurance athletes they’re concerned about.

Among the scientists banging the same drum as me are Peter Gamble of Auckland University of Technology, Lionel Chia of the University of Sydney, and Sian Allen of Lululemon Athletica’s R&D team, whose paper, “The illogic of being data-driven: reasserting control and restoring balance in our relationship with data and technology in football,” was published last year in Science and Medicine in Football. In it they write, “We propose that there is a fundamental need to reframe how we are seeking to employ data and more specifically make the necessary switch from being data-driven to data-informed.”

Remember Bob? Arguably, he was neither data-driven nor data-informed, if only because he ran fifty years ago when there wasn’t much data. But he was better off for it, at least compared to Sally and her fellow endurance athletes of today, who are data-driven without even realizing it. And what their device data is driving them to do, specifically, is train in a nearly constant state of troubleshooting, trying desperately to make up for a lack of control over the training process by responding to every cry of “Wolf” from their wristwatches with a full-scale wolf hunt.

How do you know if you’re in control of your training or not in control? How do you know if you are data-driven or merely data-informed? Here’s how: Imagine you had to train the way athletes did 50 years ago, trading your current gadget(s) for a basic stopwatch. If you are confident that this compromise would have little or no impact on your fitness development or competitive performances, then you are in control of your training and are not data-driven. The irony of it all is that you kind of have to get to the point where you don’t need your fancy athlete smartwatch to gain any benefit from it.

There’s a lot going on at 80/20 Endurance—so much, in fact, that you might be having trouble keeping up with all of it. Never fear! Within eight minutes (unless you’re a slow reader), you will be fully caught up on the major happenings here. Ready . . . Go!

A New Book

Earlier this year, we created our own publishing imprint, 80/20 Publishing. Fast forward a few months, and our very first title is about to be released! Written by Matt Fitzgerald (that’s me!), the book is called On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit. As the title suggests, it’s about pacing, the quintessential running skill, which is even more important than most runners realize, and which most runners need a lot of help with. Through his trademark mix of science and storytelling, Matt will convince you of the importance of pacing and guide you toward pacing mastery.

On Pace also includes complete training plans for the 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon distances that develop pacing skill while also getting you race-ready. Online versions of these plans are available for individual purchase.


A New Adaptive Training App 

We’ve been teasing this one for a while, and at long last it’s here. Not to be confused with the book just described, PACE (which stands for Personal Adaptive Coaching Experience) is a smartphone app developed by TrainingPeaks that uses artificial intelligence to create personalized, adaptive training plans for runners. Among the five coaches that TrainingPeaks chose to launch with is our own Matt Fitzgerald. If you like the run plans Matt built for 80/20 Endurance, you will find the PACE training experience comfortably familiar, except with full customization and adaptation, so your plan evolves with your needs. Learn more here.


A New Director of Training

And then there were four. On November 1, Leyla Porteous joined 80/20 Endurance as our director of training. A native of Australia, Leyla now lives in North Carolina with her husband and 12-year-old son. Having swum competitively in her youth, she discovered triathlon in 2012. For the last several years, Leyla has coached fellow triathletes through Flow Multisport. As our director of training, Leyla will be involved in managing, improving, and expanding all of our training products and services. She’s only been on the job for two weeks, yet her impact has already been felt. As an 80/20 athlete, you will begin to benefit from Leyla’s addition to the team very soon.


New Swim Plans

We all know swimming is different from other endurance sports. Whereas cycling and running are all about fitness, swimming is mostly about technique. In recognition of this fact, we’ve partnered with swim coach Dan Daly to develop a set of technique-focused swim training plans to accelerate improvements in swim performance. Each plan will include dryland (strength training, mobility work) and pool workouts, and will build on the improvements you’ve made by completing earlier plans in the sequence. High-quality videos will guide you through every exercise and drill. Look for Dan’s plans to drop early in the New Year!


A New Charitable Foundation

In October, we launched a new charitable foundation, the 80/20 Endurance Foundation, whose flagship initiative, the Coaches of Color Initiative, aims to improve diversity in endurance sports by awarding apprenticeship grants to aspiring coaches of color. The first grant recipient will be announced on December 1st, and the apprenticeship will last the entire 2022 calendar year. Throughout this period, the grant recipient will receive a monthly stipend of $1,000, as well as one-on-one mentoring from successful endurance coaches, free certification as an 80/20 Endurance coach, and hand-son experience coaching experience on the 80/20 Endurance platform.

Donations are always welcome. To make a contribution, apply for an apprenticeship grant, or just learn more about COCI, visit


A New Online Learning Event

What are you planning to do on Saturday, January 15, 2020? Unless you already have that date blacked out for space tourism, we suggest you spend it with us at The Endurance Event, an incredible online learning experience for athletes, coaches, and other hungry minds. Hosted by 80/20 Endurance and Accel Events, The Endurance Event is sponsored by InsideTracker and TrainingPeaks and features a stellar lineup of speakers that includes two-time world champion triathlete Siri Lindley and renowned exercise physiologists Stephen Seiler and Samuele Marcora.

The Endurance Event is the perfect way to start the coming race season. Fill your brain with cutting-edge information on training, diet and nutrition, mental fitness, and tech, and come away fired up to make 2022 your best year yet! Tickets to the first part of the half-day event are free, and the cost of attending the full event is way less than that of a new pair of running shoes.

We’re proud to bring this unparalleled learning experience to the worldwide endurance community. Help us make it a success so we can do it again every year! For complete information about The Endurance Event and to register, click here.


New In-Person Training Camps

Would you like to meet and spend time with some of your fellow 80/20 Endurance athletes? Or would you rather travel to a stunning endurance destination and immerse yourself in a pro-style training experience? Or would you prefer to learn from some of the leading minds in endurance training, nutrition, and psychology, including Matt Fitzgerald and Dr. Cory Nyamora? With 80/20 Endurance in-person run and triathlon camps, you don’t have to choose! We’ve partnered with Endeavorun to create a series of unique camp experiences that truly offer something for every athlete. Check out our lineup for the 2022 season:


Austin Winter Running Retreat

February 17-21

Kickstart the 2022 season with our five-day running retreat in beautiful Austin, Texas. Highlights will include group workouts, meals, and hangouts; a personal injury evaluation from physical therapist Asher Henry; one-on-one “office hours” with Matt Fitzgerald, Bertrand Newson, and other great coaches; and the opportunity to run the Austin Marathon with Hanna Hunstad (or try to beat her, or just cheer her on, or run the half marathon or 5K!).

Learn More


San Diego Spring Triathlon Retreat and Clinic

February 27-March 6

The sport of triathlon was born in San Diego, and for good reason. There’s simply no better place to swim, bike, run, and chill with your fellow triathletes than “America’s Finest City.” This two-part camp features a mix of epic training experiences and teaching sessions. Come for the first half of the week if you’re mainly interested in training or for the full week if you want it all. Highlights include an open-water swim clinic with Hanna Hunstad, bike threshold testing on Fiesta Island, and mental skills training with sports psychologist Cory Nyamora.

Learn More


Martha’s Vineyard Morning Run and Triathlon Camp

July 25-29

Would you rather enjoy a summer vacation with your family on Martha’s Vineyard or go there to train with fellow athletes and be coached by Matt Fitzgerald, sports dietitian Lydia Nader, and Endeavorun founder Jake Tuber? This special five-day camp for runners and triathletes allows you to do both! You’ll spend each morning working out with other campers and learning from our expert staff and the rest of the day enjoying family time in the summer paradise of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

 Learn More


New Cycling Plans

We are pleased to announce that a full selection of 80/20 Endurance training plans for cyclists is now available. There are 64 plans in all, covering three separate disciplines (Gran Fondo, gravel racing, and time trials), short and long distances, and two intensity metrics (heart rate and power). Designed by Coach Matt, the plans feature not only the 80/20 intensity balance you know and love but also recent innovations in workout design and periodization, as well as unique coaching tips in each and every workout. And like our training plans for runners, triathletes, and obstacle racers, these come in four levels, covering the full spectrums of experience and ability.

We think our new 80/20 cycling plans are terrific, but don’t take our word for it. You can sample any plan you choose for free, and if you’re an 80/20 Endurance subscriber, of course, you have access to all of them. And if you’re not a cyclist, you should become one just so can experience these plans.


A New Coaching Certification

Many 80/20 athletes are also coaches, or aspire to become coaches. And many of these athletes have let us know they want us to offer a proprietary 80/20 Endurance coaching certification. If you’re among these athletes, you’ll be happy to know that an 80/20 Endurance coach certification program is on the way. Our best guess at this moment is that it will be available on or around March 1, 2022. Elements of the program will be an official study guide written by Coach Matt, an online course, and a two-part exam (multiple choice and practical). We’re also exploring the possibility of offering in-person certification events. Stay tuned!

On October 12, 2020, two days after she finished third in the Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:27:19, American professional runner Sara Hall posted the following message on Twitter:

“Committed 100% to the goal.

Suffered through my best training I’ve ever done.

Showed up healthy, excited, confident.

Executed the plan.

Fought [till] the end.


Honestly, I really wanted to win this one. But I have to say “Mission accomplished.”

Can’t wait to do it all over again!


Photo from Sara’s Twitter


I like just about everything Sara shares on social media, but I liked this message especially. The attitude conveyed in her concise marathon postmortem is precisely the attitude I try to nurture in the athletes I coach. Simply stated, I believe that athletes should define success in ways that aren’t dependent on factors they can’t control. It’s clear that Sara did just this in the Chicago Marathon, and that’s why she was able to come away saying “mission accomplished” even though she fell short of her stated goals.

Many if not most endurance athletes have a hard time distinguishing success from goal achievement. I believe Sara Hall herself would say she struggled to make this important distinction earlier in her career. And, at the risk of putting too many words in her mouth, I think she would agree also that the distinction is indeed important. Athletes who focus only on what they can control and don’t worry about what they can’t control display a higher degree of mental fitness that enables them to race better and enjoy the racing experience more. For these reasons, it’s something every athlete should aspire to, and athletes like Sara help us get there by showing us how it’s done.

To be clear, distinguishing success from goal achievement is not a matter of lowering your standards and awarding yourself a ribbon regardless of what happens in a given race. Again, look at Sara. In making it her goal to win the Chicago Marathon, she was trying to do something no American woman had done since 2005. That’s not a low bar. What’s more, until the weather report put the kybosh on her original time goal, Sara was also aiming to break Deena Kastor’s American record of 2:19:36 for the marathon distance.

The very fact that Sara was willing to submit to the elements and modify her time goal is indicative of her ability to separate success from specific outcomes. Too many runners set their hearts so intractably on goal times that they insist on shooting for them no matter what Mother Nature throws their way. Unlike Sara, these runners view failure to achieve their original goal as their failure, regardless of whether its cause was within their control or beyond it.

The irrationality of this mindset is obvious, but the point I want to emphasis is that the same mindset is also harmful to performance. Athletes who allow their definition of success to depend on factors they can’t control experience more anxiety before and during competition, and anxiety harms performance. These same athletes are also more likely to lose motivation and stop giving their best effort when they see their goal slipping out of reach. Hence they cannot, as Sara Hall could after Chicago, say they “fought till the end.”

If you like games of chance, there are many great options to choose from. You could, for example, play the lottery, bet on horses, or shoot craps. But if you’re more interested in being the best endurance athlete you can be, then you should follow the example of the athletes who actually do succeed in being their best and eliminate chance as a determining factor in your successes and failures. What does this mean? It means that, regardless of what your stated goals may be, you judge your performance by asking yourself two questions: 1) Did I make good decisions? and 2) Did I try as hard as I could?

If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then you succeeded, whether or not you achieved your stated goals. And by the same token, if your answer to either question is no, then you should be disappointed in your performance, again regardless of whether you achieved your goals. I assure you, this is how all great athletes think, not just Sara Hall. If they achieve a race goal but finish knowing they could have gone faster if they’d made better decisions or dug deeper, they come away disappointed. And if they fall short of a goal because the race takes place in a nor’easter and their shoe falls off halfway through and then a dog runs onto the course and bit their ankle, yet they overcome all of these vicissitudes through good decision-making and sheer effort to salvage a performance that truly is the best they could possibly have done considering everything, then they come away satisfied, perhaps even proud.

Of course there is going to be some sense of disappointment when factors beyond one’s control conspire to put a goal beyond reach. This is only human. Sara Hall makes no attempt to hide her regret in her tweet. But this hint of bitterness is vastly outweighed by the satisfaction she takes in having done everything she could to be the best she could be and to have the best possible experience, both in preparing for the Chicago Marathon and on race day. Be like Sara!

The era of big data has arrived in sports science research, and I couldn’t be happier. For a long time I was skeptical about sports science as a source of useful information about how to train effectively as an endurance athlete. The typical study was just too limited in scope and too simplified in comparison to the real world for me as a coach to put much stock in its findings. Even basic truths like the importance of training at high volume to maximize endurance fitness had virtually zero support in the scientific literature because it was almost impossible to prove or disprove within the constraints of a typical sports science study.

But the advent of big data has changed all that. Now scientists can answer specific training questions with a high degree of confidence by collecting training data from tens of thousands of athletes and teasing out correlations between training inputs and fitness and performance outputs.

The latest example is a study on tapering in marathon training that was conduction by Barry Smyth and Aonghus Lawlor at University College Dublin and published in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. Smyth and Lawlor analyzed data from the devices of more than 158,000 runners in the final weeks of marathon training, focusing on 1) how long their taper period was (i.e., how many weeks out from race day their training volume began to decline), 2) how disciplined their taper was (i.e., how consistently their training volume decreased throughout it), and 3) how well they performed in the marathon relative to their best 10K time. Here are the main findings:

  1. A more disciplined taper (i.e., consistent decline in volume) was the strongest predictor of better marathon performance. Once runners began to taper, they were better off continuing to taper.
  2. Runners who tapered for three weeks tended to perform better than runners who tapered for two weeks or less. Extending the taper to four weeks resulted in no additional gains.
  3. Runners who trained at higher volumes prior to tapering tended to taper longer and to execute more disciplined tapers.
  4. A majority of the runners (64 percent) tapered for two weeks or less and in an undisciplined way.

The authors concluded, “An important practical implication of this work is that there could be an opportunity for many runners to improve their relative performance by implementing a more disciplined form of taper. This is likely to be of considerable interest to recreational marathoners and coaches.”

They’re certainly right on that last point. As a coach to many marathon runners, I take considerable interest in these findings. But I’m not exactly sure yet what to do with them. I’ve always believed that the duration of a taper should be determined by how hard the athlete trains before the taper, and that most recreational runners don’t train hard enough to require a long taper. In this study, appropriately, high-volume runners were found to have engaged in the longest tapers, but even lower-volume runners tended to gain a slight benefit from a three-week taper versus a shorter one. The impact of a disciplined taper was greater than that of a lengthier taper, however, and like any coach with half a brain I always prescribe disciplined tapers, so that won’t change.


Come to think of it, I don’t know if anything will change. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single athlete I’ve ever coached who underperformed in a marathon as a consequence of feeling under-tapered going into the race. As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other hand, my curiosity is piqued, so I will probably give one of my athletes an opportunity to experiment with a slightly longer marathon taper in the near future. If it doesn’t work, we can both blame Barry Smyth and Aonghus Lawlor.

As a final note, although this study focused on marathon tapering, its most striking finding had to do with marathon pacing. Specifically, female runners were found to pace their marathons far more skillfully than male runners, who on average added 4.49 minutes to their finish times by starting too aggressively and hitting the wall. For me, this finding points to the need for a comprehensive guide to developing pacing skill. Stay tuned.

Even before long covid scrambled my brain, I was absentminded. It sounds like such a benign foible, but absentmindedness can be deadly. For example, it nearly killed my dog in a Kansas hotel one time.

It was a raw, gray Friday at the tail end of March, stubborn winter turfing out nominal spring. I’d just returned to the pet-friendly Best Western Wichita Northeast after walking Queenie and was, as usual, lost in thought, paying no mind to the twenty pound ball of fluff trailing behind me as I strode across the lobby, stepped into a waiting elevator car, and pressed the button for the third floor. The doors closed. It was then I realized Queenie was still in the lobby, her leash caught between the sealed doors. The car began to move. In the ensuing panic, I overlooked the big red Stop switch located at the top of the control panel and instead jabbed the Lobby button repeatedly, frantic as a cornered cat. The elevator kept rising.

I knew Queenie’s leash was less than two floors in length. My mind pictured the horrible scene that would unfold below as the elevator ascended. The leash line would fully unspool. When there was no play left, Queenie would be dragged to the door, then yanked off the ground, levitating like pulley freight until she hit the ceiling, at which point she would be either strangled to death or decapitated by her own collar.

After a seeming eternity, the car came to a juddering halt and the doors opened. Third floor? Second floor? I couldn’t tell. Making no assumptions, I hastily stuffed the leash handle into the narrow gap between the elevator floor and the landing and tried to jam it through. Maddeningly, the width of the handle exactly matched that of the gap, a perfect wedge. I pounded it with a fist, heedless of pain, and when that didn’t work, I stomped it with the heel of my right shoe. At last I succeeded in driving through the stupid pink plastic thingy, holding my breath as it vanished soundlessly into the void.

I hit the Lobby button again. The doors closed and the car sank. I prayed. When the doors opened again, I saw a boy of twelve or thirteen years with a stricken look on his face. Saying nothing, he made a tentative movement with his right arm, proffering Queenie’s leash handle. The leash itself was snagged in the door frame in a complicated way. I lowered my gaze, and there sat Queenie at the boy’s feet, unharmed and unconcerned, smiling that endearing openmouthed canine smile that made everyone around her smile too, whether they wanted to or not. A woman with big hair, probably the boy’s mother, appeared behind him.

“Your dog sure didn’t want to go in the elevator!” she drawled.

I stood blinking at her for an awkwardly long time.

“That could have been a whole lot worse,” I croaked.

Quick to forgive, Queenie maintained full faith in her daddy’s omnipotence despite the near-tragedy I’d inflicted upon her. In truth, I was a superhero of sorts back then, absentmindedness notwithstanding. The events I just described took place during a fifty-day cross-country road trip in which I drove 7,000 miles, ran eight marathons, did seven book signings, and published a daily blog, all while somehow keeping up with my book writing, coaching, and other normal duties. It was a limit-testing experience, to be sure, but I felt wholly equal to it throughout, in the zone and unstoppable.

Matt and Queenie

Dogs are more perceptive than even most dog lovers give them credit for. Not much escapes them. Queenie couldn’t have failed to notice her daddy’s sudden diminishment a couple of years after the elevator incident—how he no longer left the house twice a day every day wearing running or cycling clothes, or with a bag of gym or swim gear slung over his shoulder; how he paused to catch his breath while climbing the stairs; how his forehead sometimes dropped to his desktop for no apparent reason, and stayed there. And yet, like the elevator incident, these signs of weakness did nothing to dim Queenie’s faith in my omnipotence, as became evident when she too got sick, drawing the short straw of congestive heart failure.

How fitting that my sweet little pup’s cause of death was to be a heart that had literally grown too big! So big, in fact, did Queenie’s fluid-bloated ticker become in her final days that it pressed against her trachea, restricting her breathing, slowly suffocating her. Periodically in those awful last days she would fix me with beseeching eyes that betrayed a heartrending trust in my power to make it stop. But of course I couldn’t—not without taking her on a one-way trip to the place she feared more than any other, and I was determined to spare her that ultimate trauma until and unless it became unavoidable.

Among the peculiarities of Queenie’s breed is wind intolerance. Bichons have sensitive eyes, so you will never see one sticking its head out the window of a moving vehicle as other breeds do. When I walked her on blustery days she would scuttle along with her belly close to the earth, head down and eyes slitted. Sometimes she’d refuse outright, stiffening at the threshold in a posture that said, “No, thanks. I can hold it a little longer.”

As fate would have it, a storm type known as a bomb cyclone struck northern California last Sunday, by which time Queenie was in obvious distress, hyperventilating and unable to sit still. That evening, the San Francisco 49ers played the Indianapolis Colts in nearby Santa Clara in the same atrocious weather, which caused seven fumbles. Whenever NBC cut to commercial, I went looking Queenie, who kept moving from spot to spot in search of relief, comforting her as best I could with strokes and pats and sweet words and nuzzling.

During the 2-minute warning of the first half, I couldn’t find her. I looked behind the living room sofa (a favorite cozy nook), but she wasn’t there. I looked behind the headboard in the master bedroom (her nighttime nest), but she wasn’t there, either. In the kitchen, a cottony blur in the periphery of my vision caught my attention. I whipped around and there she was, on the back patio of all places, lying in her trademark Sphinx pose, facing directly into a 45 mph gale. I froze in slack-jawed wonderment. Queenie had gone fifteen and a half years avoiding breezes of all kinds, and now, in her waning hours, she’d chosen to squeeze through her doggy door and into a blow as powerful as any she had ever encountered.

Then, as if sensing my astonished stare from the other side of the sliding glass window, Queenie turned her head toward me. For a brief, everlasting moment, her milky old eyes held mine, and then she turned to face the wind again.

I found Queenie dead at the foot of the steps the next morning. But that won’t be the image that stays with me. Instead I will remember the peaceful, almost beatific way she basked in a force that had been her lifelong nemesis until then. I’m not quite fool enough to believe Queenie was sending an explicit message to her ailing, at times defeated, daddy. But I do believe dogs offer lessons to their human guardians just by being who and what they are. Lessons in forgiveness. In not sweating the small stuff. Other things.

Face the wind, daddy. It’s okay. Face it.

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In 2018, Bernadette Brady of Western Sydney University got together with a few colleagues and designed a study to determine to what degree, if any, implicit ethnic bias negatively impacted physiotherapy care among Australian ethnic minorities. Forty-eight patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain who identified as Mandaean, Assyrian, or Vietnamese participated in the trial. Half of the subjects were assigned to a standard physiotherapy treatment program while the other half were assigned to a culturally adapted treatment program that was identical in substance but was delivered in a culturally sensitive manner.

The results were striking. Only 58 percent of subjects in the standard treatment program completed it, compared to 96 percent in the culturally adapted program. Attendance and adherence were also significantly greater among patients in the culturally adapted program, who reported less pain-related suffering. Again, the actual treatments administered were the same; only their presentation differed.

This study highlights a fundamental truth, which is that people tend to get better outcomes from helping professionals when they are able to connect with those professionals on a cultural level. Students are more likely to excel under teachers they can relate to culturally, soldiers are more likely to reup and climb the ranks when they can relate to their commanding officer culturally, and yes, athletes tend to improve more when they share a cultural connection with their coach.

Not only that, but athletes are more likely to choose a particular sport in the first place if they see people who look and talk like them participating in and coaching that sport. As I write this, five of the ten highest-ranked American women professional tennis players are Black. This wouldn’t be the case if not for the influence of the Williams sisters. Nothing like the “Williams Effect” has yet happened in endurance coaching, but I would like to see it.

Why? Two main reasons. The first is that I know what endurance sports can do for people. Being an endurance athlete has changed my life for the better. It has helped me learn more about myself and grow as a person, it has given me some of the most intense experiences of my life, and it has taken me all over the world and brought great friends into my life. I want these types of experiences to be accessible to everyone, and right now they’re not. In theory they might be, but the numbers tell the true story. My wife, Nataki, who is Black, grew up in East Oakland, where she still has family and where I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 26 years. It’s difficult to envision a viable path from that neighborhood to a triathlon start line. The existence of more nonwhite endurance coaches would help change that.

The second reason I would like to see more people of color working as endurance coaches is that diversity enriches the endurance sports experience for everyone, including white guys like me. I remember traveling to Boston in April 1983 to watch the world’s oldest and greatest marathon, 98 percent of whose participants were male. It was a really cool event despite the extreme gender imbalance, but there’s no denying that the Boston Marathon is infinitely cooler today with a 50/50 gender split. Studies have shown that diverse work teams are more productive than homogenous work teams. But that’s not quite what I’m talking about here. The benefits of diversity in sport are less tangible than increased work productivity but no less real, more akin to how diverse parties are more fun and memorable than parties where everyone looks the same.

Instead of passively hoping endurance sports become more diverse, I’ve decided to do something about it. That something is the Coaches of Color Initiative, a program that operates under the aegis of the 80/20 Endurance Foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of 80/20 Endurance. COCI will award apprenticeship grants to people of color who aspire to successful careers are endurance coaches. The first grant will be awarded through a selection process hosted on the 80/20 Endurance Foundation website (, where candidates will complete a brief application and submit a personal statement in either written or video format. The application window is from October 21 to November 18 and a winner will be named December 1.

The apprenticeship itself will last for one year. During this period, the grant recipient will receive a monthly stipend of $1,000 and will undergo a comprehensive apprenticeship experience with 80/20 Endurance. The program will include free training and certification as an 80/20 Endurance coach, one-on-one mentoring sessions with experienced coaches of color, and opportunities to create training content and gain valuable coaching experience through the 80/20 Endurance platform.

Funding for the Coaches of Color Initiative comes primarily from our company, which automatically donates 1 percent of gross monthly revenues to the Foundation. Future apprenticeship grant opportunities will become available as funding permits, so the more support we get from the endurance community and potential corporate backers, the more coaches we can help lift up.

COCI is not a one-man show, thank goodness. My colleagues at 80/20 Endurance, David Warden and Hanna Hunstad, have worked their butts off alongside me to make this dream a reality. Additionally, we’ve brought on running community leader and 80/20 Endurance ambassador Bertrand Newson to codirect the program, and we’ve put together a diverse advisory board to offer perspective and guidance on all of our important decisions. Its members are RaceMob founder Kevin Chang; running coach, podcaster, and online influencer India Cook; and Ball State University Women’s Cross Country and Track Coach Angelina Ramos.

I know the above sounds rather press release-y, and I will go ahead and admit that the last few paragraphs of this post were lifted from the press release I wrote to announce the launch of COCI. But we’re talking about real human beings here, not some bandwagon PR move. It won’t be long before an actual person with a name and a face and a voice is awarded the first apprenticeship grant, and you will get to watch this person grow and flourish within the program. Then a second real person will get the same opportunity, and so on.

I can’t wait to get started on this journey, and I hope you’ll make it with me in some capacity.

Here in the northern hemisphere, the off-season is upon us, and athletes like you are figuring out how to train between now and the time you’re ready to start the next race-focused training cycle. For athletes who use 80/20 Endurance plans, this figuring-out process is a matter of deciding which specific plan or plans to follow during the off-season period. The purpose of this article is to provide information to guide these decisions.

There are five different types of 80/20 plans that are well-suited for use during the off-season: Maintenance Plans, Goal-Focused Run Plans, Racing Weight Plans, Stride Academy Plans, and Time Trial/FTP Boost Cycling Plans. You’ll find brief descriptions of each below. Your starting point in planning your off-season is choosing a plan that meets your needs. For example, if you spent all spring and summer training for ultramarathons and you’d like to get back in touch with your speed, pick a Run Faster Plan.

From here things get a bit more complicated. Some amount of mixing and matching will likely be required to keep you occupied from day one of your off-season to the day you start ramping up for your next event. It goes without saying that any strength plan you choose to follow will need to be layered on top of an endurance plan. But there may also be a need to string two or more plans together.

Let’s say your off-season is 14 weeks long and you want to finish it with a Racing Weight Triathlon Plan, which is 16 weeks long. In this case you will have eight weeks to fill before you start this plan. The obvious choice would be to follow the Triathlon Maintenance Plan, abandoning it after Week 8. But there are other options. For example, if running form is your primary weakness as a triathlete, you might fill six of those first eight weeks with a Stride Academy Plan supplemented by maintenance level swimming and cycling.

One thing to keep at the front of your mind throughout this process is load management. During the off-season you need to keep your overall training load moderate so you’re fresh when you start your next race-focused training cycle. Use the volume summaries in the tables below to ensure the plan you choose is well within your load tolerance. The exceptions are cases where your off-season is long enough to allow you to build up to some sort of fitness peak, then recover before starting a race build. Our Build Run Endurance Plans, for example, finish at high volume, so you wouldn’t want to go straight from one of these to race-focused training.

Note that all of these plans finish at higher workloads than they start at. So, if you do end up stringing two plans together, you might want to pad the early weeks of the second plan to avoid an unnecessary drop in training load, hence fitness, after you complete the first plan.

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Maintenance Plans

Our Run and Triathlon Maintenance Plans are designed to help athletes maintain a foundation of basic fitness between training cycles. Their general-purpose nature makes them a good default choice for off-season training.


Run Maintenance Plans

Level Duration Composition Initial Volume Peak Volume
0 12 weeks 4 runs/week 2.5 hours/week 4 hours/week
1 12 weeks 5 runs/week 2 hours/week 3.5 hours/week
2 12 weeks 6 runs/week 3.5 hours/week 5 hours/week
3 12 weeks 6-7 runs/week 5.25 hours/week 7 hours/week


Triathlon Maintenance Plan

Level Duration Composition Initial Volume Peak Volume
12 weeks 3 swims, 3 rides, 3 runs/week 5 hours/week 8 hours/week


Strength Maintenance Plans

The off-season is a good time to place a greater emphasis on strength training, when endurance fitness development is a lower priority. Our Strength Maintenance Plans were designed to build a reserve of strength for athletes to draw upon during their next race-focused training cycle.


Level Duration Composition Initial Volume Peak Volume
Running 12 weeks 2 sessions/week 2 hours/week 2 hours/week
Triathlon 12 weeks 2 sessions/week 2 hours/week 2 hours/week


Goal-Focused Run Plans

Our Goal-Focused Run Training Plans are designed to help runners work on a weak point in their fitness. The off-season is the perfect time to do this. If endurance is your weakness, choose a Build Endurance Run Plan. If speed is your weakness, choose a Run Faster Plan. And if you’re coming off an injury, illness, or long break and running itself is your weakness, choose a Starting Out/Starting Over Plan.


Build Run Endurance Plans

Level Duration Composition Initial Volume Peak Volume
0 11 weeks 5 runs/week 2.5 hours/week 6.5 hours/week
1 11 weeks 6 runs/week 4.5 hours/week 7.5 hours/week
2 11 weeks 6-7 runs/week 5.5 hours/week 9 hours/week
3 11 weeks 8-9 runs/week 7.5 hours/week 11.5 hours/week


Run Faster Plans

Level Duration Composition Initial Volume Peak Volume
0 7 weeks 4 runs/week 2 hours/week 3 hours/week
1 7 weeks 5 runs/week 3 hours/week 4 hours/week
2 7 weeks 6 runs/week 4.5 hours/week 6 hours/week
3 7 weeks 7 runs/week 6.5 hours/week 7 hours/week


Starting Out/Starting Over Plans

Level Duration Composition Initial Volume Peak Volume
0 6 weeks 3 walk-runs/week 1.5 hours/week 2.5 hours/week
1 6 weeks 3 walk-runs, 1 cross-train/week 2 hours/week 3 hours/week
2 6 weeks 3 walk-runs, 2 cross-train2/week 3 hours/week 4 hours/week
3 6 weeks 3 runs, 3 cross-train/week 4 hours/week 5.5 hours/week


Racing Weight Plans

Our Run and Triathlon Racing Weight Plans are integrated training-and-diet plans designed to help athletes shave a bit of excess body fat before they start their next race-focused training cycle.


Run Plans

Level Duration Composition Initial Volume Peak Volume
0 6 weeks 4 runs, 2 strength workouts/week 4 hours/week 5 hours/week
1 6 weeks 5 runs, 2 strength workouts/week 4.5 hours/week 6 hours/week
2 6 weeks 6 runs, 3 strength workouts/week 7 hours/week 8 hours/week
3 6 weeks 6-7 runs, 3 strength workouts/week 8 hours/week 10 hours/week


Triathlon Plans

Level Duration Composition Initial Volume Peak Volume
0 6 weeks 1-2 swims, 1-2 rides, 1-2 runs, 2 strength workouts/week 3.5 hours/week 4 hours/week
1 6 weeks 2 swims, 2 rides, 2 runs, 2 strength workouts/week 3.5 hours/week 4.5 hours/week
2 6 weeks 2 swims, 2 rides, 2 runs, 3 strength workouts/week 7 hours/week 8.5 hours/week
3 6 weeks 3 swims, 3 rides, 3 runs, 3 strength workouts/week 7.5 hours/week 10 hours/week


Stride Academy Plans

There is no better time than the off-season to work on improving your running form. And there’s no better way to work on your running form than with one of our Stride Academy Plans.


Level Duration Composition Initial Volume Peak Volume
0 6 weeks 4 runs, 2 strength workouts, 1 drills + plyos session/week 3.25 hours/week 4.5 hours/week
1 6 weeks 5 runs, 2 strength workouts, 1 drills + plyos session/week 3.75 hours/week 5.5 hours/week
2 6 weeks 6 runs, 2 strength workouts, 1 drills + plyos session/week 4.75 hours/week 7 hours/week
3 6 weeks 7 runs, 2 strength workouts, 1 drills + plyos session/week 5.75 hours/week 8.5 hours/week


Time Trial/FTP Boost Cycling Plans

Designed mainly as time-trial training plans for cyclists, our new Time Trial/FTP Boost Cycling Plans also work well as off-season plans for triathletes and duathletes for whom cycling is a weakness.


20K Time Trial/FTP Boost Plans

Level Duration Composition Initial Volume Peak Volume
0 9 weeks 4 rides, 2 optional cross-trains/week 3.75 hours/week 5 hours/week
1 9 weeks 5 rides, 1 optional cross-train/week 4.25 hours/week 5.5 hours/week
2 9 weeks 6 rides/week 5.5 hours/week 7 hours/week
3 9 weeks 6 rides, 1 optional cross-train/week 9 hours/week 11.25 hours/week


40K Time Trial/FTP Boost Plans

Level Duration Composition Initial Volume Peak Volume
0 12 weeks 4 rides, 2 optional cross-trains/week 3.75 hours/week 5.5 hours/week
1 12 weeks 5 rides, 1 optional cross-train/week 4.25 hours/week 7 hours/week
2 12 weeks 6 rides/week 5.5 hours/week 7.75 hours/week
3 12 weeks 6 rides, 1 optional cross-train/week 9 hours/week 11.5 hours/week






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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

My new book, On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit will guide you step by step toward pacing mastery. Click here for a free sample chapter of On Pace, and here to purchase a copy.

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.


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:

Training heart rate intensity zones example
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.


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


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.


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



Easy Run



Fast Finish Run


40:00 easy + 5:00 @ critical velocity

Easy Run



Depletion Run


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


“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 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 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 

Strength Training 

Easy Run
8 miles easy 

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

Strength Training 

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

Strength Training 

Cross-training 2x Long Run
23 miles easy
Cross-training 2x Easy Run
8 miles easy 

Steady State Run
8 miles including 6 miles @ marathon effort 

Strength Training 

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

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

Strength Training 
Cross-training 2x Strength Training 

Easy Run + drills and strides
Strength Training 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Augment Your Home Gym

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

Expand Your Healthy Cooking Repertoire

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

Bone Up on Your Sport

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

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

Build Better Sleep Habits

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

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

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

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

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 co