blog post 2023 03 24T132705.345

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

In my late teens and early twenties I was a meathead, visiting the gym several times a week to toss around heavy things. At some point during this period I developed a hypothesis that there are both relative and absolute components to how weightlifters perceive resistance. Suppose you are able to bench press 200 pounds, and your friend is able to bench press 300 pounds. Does this mean that benching 200 pounds feels exactly the same to you as benching 300 pounds does to your friend? My hypothesis said no. While both of you will feel that your muscles are working at maximal capacity (relative component), your friend will perceive his weight as being heavier—because it is heavier! On a purely physical level, your friend’s bones, ligaments, tendons, and myofascia will be under 300 pounds of stress, which is objectively greater than 200 pounds of stress, so why wouldn’t your brain perceive that?

I’m not 100 percent sure this hypothesis is correct, but I’m 99 percent sure. What is certain is that the endurance equivalent of my weightlifting hypothesis is true. Simply put, athletes experience intensity and speed differently. If your maximal sprint speed, say, is 18 mph and your friend’s maximal sprint speed is 21 mph, you feel you’re working as hard at 18 mph as your friend feels at 21 mph, and yet your friend will perceive that he’s moving faster—just as you yourself would do if you sprinted on a decline and got up to 21 mph. This is an incontestable fact.

What is not an incontestable fact is my further speculation that runners of all abilities want to run between 7:00 and 8:00 per mile in their bread-and-butter aerobic runs. I believe this is the absolute speed that feels about right for most runners when they’re just out for a jog. This is why elite runners seldom go much faster than 7:00/mile in their easy runs even though the intensity associated with this pace is laughably low for them, and it’s why middle-of-the-pack runners seldom run much slower than 8:00/mile in easy runs even though the pace associated with this pace is too high for easy runs. I’m exaggerating a bit, but studies have shown that fitter runners do tend to run at a lower intensity on their easy days than less-fit runners. So what we see is a compression toward the middle in terms of easy-run pacing, with slower runners running faster than they should and faster runners running slower than they could without violating the purpose of this type of run.

If my conjecture is correct, it explains why slower runners so often struggle initially to stay in Zone 2 when adopting the 80/20 training method. Although Zone 2 is technically easier than the Zone X intensity at which the majority of slower runners do their easy runs, there is something in the bodies of all runners (most, anyway) that prefers the absolute pace range of 7:00-8:00 per mile. I see this phenomenon as roughly analogous to the almost universal human preference to run rather than walk when the target pace is 13:00 per mile even though walking is more energetically efficient at this pace.

I confess that I have little patience for runners who adhere poorly to the 80/20 requirement that they ease back on their easy runs. I want to grab the complainers by the lapels and ask, “Do you trust that slowing down in your easy runs will benefit your fitness? Yes? And is it physically possible for you to go slower in this runs even though it feels kind of weird? Yes again? Then just do it and stop complaining!”

Correction: I used to have little patience for the complaints of slower runners who struggled to hold themselves back to Zone 2 in easy runs—until I myself became a slower runner!

When I developed long covid in October 2020, I was far from slow. Having recently run 33:25 for 10K in a solo time trial on a wheel-measured route, I was trying to decide between two options for my next goal: 4:49 for the mile or 15:59 for 5K on the track, both times within shouting distance of PR’s set decades earlier. Little did I know at the time that within four months I would be forced to stop running altogether and that I wouldn’t run again for another 23 months.

I am now 51 years old and woefully out of shape, but I am more or less healthy. For six weeks in early 2023 I was cautiously progressing on a self-devised regimen of every-other-day walk/runs. What’s funny is that I couldn’t seem to make myself jog much slower than 9:00 per mile (at 7,000 feet of altitude) in the running segments of these sessions. Both my heart rate and breathing rate suggest I was well above Zone 2 at this pace, and yet I persist.

Here’s how I justify my hypocrisy: First, while adhering to an 80/20 intensity balance is the optimal way to build aerobic fitness, it is not the only way. Though inefficient, my regimen was working. One morning I ran 3 x 8:00 at an average pace of 8:45 per mile and felt pretty good, something I could not have done at the start of this process. Furthermore, adhering to an 80/20 intensity balance is only really necessary when you’re trying to maximize your fitness, and that was not my goal. I was just relishing the simple ability to do something I love that I couldn’t do for a very long time.

Barring setbacks, I expect to continue on my present course until I’m fit enough to run an hour straight. My pace will continue to drop as I gain fitness, though not as swiftly, such that by the time I reach the one-hour target, I will be running in Zone 2, just like the old days. Then I’ll weigh my options.

In the meantime, the experience has given me greater empathy for runners who struggle to force themselves to stay in Zone 2 on easy runs. Whether or not my theory of a universally preferred jogging speed is accurate, I have a better appreciation for the impediments to slowing down. A better man than I would not have needed to choke down a big old slice of humble pie to gain this appreciation, but although I’m not above the occasional hypocrisy, one thing I’ll never do is claim to be a better man than I am.