Final Surge

Ever since my book How Bad Do You Want It? was published in 2015 I’ve received a steady drip of emails from struggling high school runners, and occasionally also from their coaches and parents. Last week I got one from a runner who was frustrated by a seemingly inexplicable cessation of improvement. He couldn’t understand it. He had trained hard all summer, pushed himself daily in-season, set massive goals, taken every race very seriously, and so on.

From my perspective, this young man was answering his own question. Pushing hard all the time on every level is not a formula for sustainable improvement. Athletes are human beings, and no matter how passionate we might be about our sport, we need some kind of balance to avoid stagnation and burnout.

“Macro pacing” is my term for the practice of husbanding one’s emotional energy in ways that best serve the interests of the athlete as a human being. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years, having developed a reliable intuitive sense of when to go all-in on training and racing and when to step back and prioritize other things. Recognizing the need for this ebb and flow and not trying to resist it are big reasons, I believe, that I am still in love with endurance athletics more than 25 years into the journey.

Currently I’m at an interesting, transitional time in my macro pacing. Last year was my very best as an athlete. Never before have I invested more of myself in sport. The timing was good. Injuries kept me from doing a single race in 2013. In the latter half of 2014, my body started to come around. Through patient persistence, I was able to continue the upward trend throughout 2015 and 2016. That’s when I decided to basically give my life over to sport the following year, which I did by traveling across America in the spring, completing eight marathons in eight weeks, and spending the summer and early fall in Flagstaff, training with a team of professional runners.

Both were incredible experiences, and hard to let go of, but I was wise enough to know that it would be foolish of me to try to keep the momentum going. Another injury ensured that 2018 was a fallow year, but I haven’t really minded being injured because I needed to chill anyway.

Not forever, though. For many years I have wanted to get back into triathlon, and specifically to race another Ironman. In late June, endeavoring to turn my inability to run into an opportunity, I started swimming and biking. Not long afterward, I signed up for Ironman Santa Rosa 2019, which takes place in May, and went public with my intention of trying to qualify for the Ironman World Championship.

Since then, folks following my training log on Final Surge have probably been scratching their heads, thinking, ‘If this guy wants to make it to Kona, he’d better start getting serious.’

I get it. My swim training has been minimal. I’ve been doing all of my cycling on a road bike with no power meter. And, until fairly recently, all of my run training wasn’t running at all but steep uphill treadmill walking. But despite appearances, I know what I’m doing, and that’s pacing myself. Macro pacing.

There’s a reason I signed up for a qualifier that was 10 months away at the time. I had a few major hurdles to clear before it made sense to go all-in with this new quest. My plan was to take a patient, measured approach to the initial phase of my preparation, until I was past those barriers, and then hit the gas. My swim training has been minimalist because I wanted to rediscover the technique I found and lost back in 2003 before I started logging a lot of yardage, as with swimming I believe in the old adage, “Practice makes permanent.” I didn’t buy a triathlon bike or a power meter because I had to identify and address the cause of a chronic cycling-related right knee issue before it made sense to spend the required money. And I walked uphill on the treadmill instead of running because I needed to give my tendonitis-afflicted left hip abductor an opportunity to fully purge itself of inflammation and damage before I could confidently begin to rebuild my running fitness.

I’ll be honest: my Kona quest hasn’t been much fun so far. I hate swimming when I’m not swimming well, I’d much rather have a slick tri bike to ride, and walking on a treadmill is really boring compared to running outdoors. But this early phase of my quest would have been even less fun if I had forced myself to do more despite the various hurdles I’ve faced.

And now things are looking up. Recently I experienced a surprise breakthrough in my swimming, which was the ironic result of a minor shoulder injury that forced me to limit my pool workouts to kick sets for a couple of weeks. Somehow this practice brought about the improved freestyle body position that I’d been previously unable to achieve by other means, and just like that I’m taking two fewer strokes per 25 yards. A combination of taping and wearing a stabilizing brace has enabled me to complete a couple of 100-mile bike rides with manageable levels of knee pain. While I don’t consider this a permanent solution, it’s buying me the time I need to find that solution, which I expect to find in the bike fitting I get at Revolutions in Fitness in Palo Alto less than two weeks from now. And at last I’m running again—16 pain-free miles last weekend!

Very soon now, a mental shift will occur in me. I’ll be all-in for Ironman, enthusiastic, a little obsessed, and enjoying the process, and I’ll have macro pacing to thank for it.

Interest in learning more about pacing? Check out my book, On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit, which guides runners step by step toward pacing mastery. Click here for a free sample chapter of On Pace, and here to purchase a copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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