I'm months behind where I expected to be in my training. I threw out my back and, for once, it did not heal quickly (so this is what getting old is like). This is my second week back and I'm running almost a minute per mile faster than I did last week; the rapid improvement in the early weeks is always fun. The plan is to do 6-8 weeks of just endurance work with two days of slow hill repeats before doing any real hard training. I was planning on racing through the spring, but now late May at the earliest and July at the latest seems to be when it'll happen.
I'm hoping this goes somewhere eventually, but I have a half-formed thought that I need to express.
If you improve a race time, you think that whatever you changed since the previous race is the reason you improved. Beside non-training reasons, improvement might have been from a long-term trend, rather than an immediate cause.
When you improve, you think that repeating the change that led to improvement will lead to further improvement. The unique circumstances before your improvement will never happen again. Doing something again does not guarantee the same results, nor is more of something necessarily better; there might be something else that is better still.
If you make a change and improve, then make the same change and fail to improve, you might think "I've become accustomed to the stimulus. I need even more of it."
Success leads to more. Failure leads to more. More leads to injury.
I was six miles into my fourth run after resuming training when I felt a twinge in my back. These things tend to sort themselves out. 50 yards later, I was unable to move without severe pain. I managed to get to a park bench and found some gentle stretching relieved most of the discomfort, so I started moving again, slowly. About 1/2 mile from home, it hit again. It took a long time to do that last bit and then I hurt so much I couldn't change clothes (or sit or lay down or lean or kneel...)
Three days later, it occurred to me what had happened. On Saturday, it got to 45 degrees, so I had decided to (unsuccessfully) chip away at an ice ridge at the end of my driveway. It was that weird jarring action that must've tweaked my back, but didn't make itself known until the next day.
It's hard to say what it is. There's a piriformis/gluteus medius problem and a psoas/quadratus lumborum problem, but it seems there might be actual sciatica issues as well. It's getting better, but not fast enough.
I took essentially the entire winter off from running, for the first time in decades, trying to get old injuries under control. Every now and then, I'd go for a 2-3 mile jog and come back saying, "Now my (choose one: plantar fascia, gluteus medius, tensor fascia latae, peroneals, hip adductors) hurt" and I'd start working on a new issue.
I said that once the weather improved - and we never get two consecutive days below zero after Valentine's Day here, regardless of what people say - I'd start training again. It's been a brutal February.
On Tuesday, I did repeats of the Ohio Street "snake" hill, which I intend to use for MVO2 repeats when in shape (at 0.4345 miles and 174 feet of climb, it approximates well to 1000m on a track). I ran as easily as I could and had difficulty managing 7 repeats at any pace - last year, I did as many as 20 nearly 3 minutes per mile faster.
Thursday, I went to the Ramsey Street hill, which I also intend to use for lactic acid tolerance repeats later (0.2156 miles, 117 feet climb - very close to 1/3 mile on a track). There was a large patch of ice, so I went carefully, and quit when I saw this:
I thought my maximal heart rate was 180 (it was 184 in 2008), so this was a true maximal effort, though it was a slow jog. Seven repeats, a bit over 3 miles, in more than 37 minutes. Last year, also in February, I did 25 repeats, a minute per mile faster and at a heart rate 20 beats per minute slower.
That's not starting from zero. That's starting from negative ten. With luck, I'll improve quickly, but it will take a long time before I can race. On the plus side, nothing hurts - and I haven't been able to say that in longer than I can remember.
One of the things that seems to happen as one ages is that maximal oxygen uptake decreases, though I suspect that, as a trainable factor, the reason for this is that masters runners aren't doing the correct workouts. Top elderly athletes like Ed Whitlock have had unusually high VO2max recordings; Whitlock also had an unusually high maximal heart rate for his age - whether he had an unusually high rate when he was young or his maximum decreased unusually slowly (probably both) is unknown. His training appears to have consisted of "slow" 2-3 hour runs and frequent races, without what most would consider typical VO2max training.
But let's take a look at the matter.
VO2max is measured by running on an inclined treadmill for about 12 minutes. It's a good measure of one's ability to run 12 minutes, so it's best for 5K comparisons. Jack Daniels, considered the foremost authority on the subject, says training for it is done at (or very near) maximal heart rate, ideally in 5 minute bursts. I can only manage my maximal heart rate under unusual circumstances and for at most 2 seconds, as other factors impede me before I get there. I think that this may be common; if something keeps a master runner from being able to run at a pace that would correspond to their actual maximal VO2max, they will have a lower measured VO2max, because that's all that can be measured. I'm going to say that VO2max training is done at the average heart rate one can manage for a 5K, which may be considerably lower than one's maximum heart rate. That leads to some possible explanation of how masters runners should train in order to increase their VO2max.
This is probably the most straightforward method. If you can mimic the effort without the pounding effects on the body, you should be able to do a lot of VO2max training, so you could train at the (assumed) VO2max heart rate while doing some other activity; cross-country skiing is probably best (the highest VO2max recordings have been measured in cross-country skiers), cycling probably the most convenient.
When you run long, either you slow or your heart rate increases over time (cardiac drift), or both. If you run long enough at a pace above an ultramarathon pace, your heart rate should eventually hit your VO2max range. Unfortunately, running this long seems to lead to overuse injuries and running a fast-ish pace for a long time is close enough to racing that it requires a very long recovery, cutting down the amount of useful training you can do. A way around that is to do a progression run, where you intentionally run the last few miles faster (necessarily running less distance); cardiac drift means that you start the harder section with an already increased heart rate, so it doesn't take much extra effort to push to VO2max. I personally find this next to impossible to do, but there is another option. If you have a long hill at the end of a long run, one's heart rate has to climb as one climbs the hill (often even when slowing down), allowing VO2max training at a relatively slow pace. Intervals vs Hills
There are two different ways to use interval training to improve VO2max. One is to use short intense repeats with very short recoveries, e.g. the Billat protocol of running for 30 seconds at the pace one could manage for 6 minutes, followed by 30 seconds at half that pace, repeated as long as possible (24 repeats seems to have been the most done in the study). Because one's heart rate doesn't fall enough during the recovery, one's heart rate during the hard parts climbs quickly and one even eventually hits the VO2max heart rate during the recoveries. This is problematic for older runners such as myself, because the very fast pace, particularly on curves, leads to injury.
The other method is the standard. 3 to 7 repeats of 800 to 2000 meters at 3K to 5K pace (about 4-6 minutes) are done, with approximately half as long a recovery as the time spent running hard. As Daniels points out, the first two minutes of each repeat may be spent in reaching the appropriate heart rate, so one doesn't run the entire workout at VO2max. As one ages, it may become difficult to run much more than two minutes at this pace, so the workout falls apart.
The alternative is to switch the workout to a hill of 4-6% incline. This causes one's heart rate to climb much faster, so you can run slower and get the same results, plus there's less of a lag time building up to the desired heart rate. The challenges here are that running downhill is stressful and can lead to injury and taking too long going down the hill could let one's heart rate drop too much. This could be obviated by doing the workout on an inclined treadmill.
It's quite possible that Whitlock was running at his VO2max during his races and that this was enough to keep him in shape. To duplicate this, one would have to race frequently and be careful to both not over-race and to not run so hard during the races that a long recovery is needed. Very competitive-minded runners such as myself find running races as low-key time trials rather than all-out races a challenge. It's probably easier when, like Whitlock, you could jog almost any race and win an age class award.
This can be used to prove I've gone insane. A couple of scientists will hate the imprecision and everyone else will stop reading once they hit the word "kurtosis."
[Pause, waiting for people to click away]
My definition for training: 1/24 x fourth partial derivative (w/ respect to time) of kurtosis minus 1/6 third partial of skewness plus 1/2 second partial of variance minus first partial of mean is positive.
Here's how it works in laymen's terms. Imagine your training as a set of data points that form a curve not too different from a normal distribution. Your races are outliers in performance, far removed from your average days, but you want to increase the possibility of a performance better than your personal record.
There are several ways to do this. First, you could simply increase the number of data points. This means running a lot more and, keeping the same percentage of races, racing a lot more. This is probably how you improved when you first started running. The likelihood of an unusually good race came from not knowing what "good" actually is. This is also the high volume approach to training, which is what was popularized in the 1960's and 1970's.
Second, you can increase the mean (average). This is what people commonly try to do, to nudge all their workouts just a bit, so the average improves and, theoretically, their best performances move as well. The problem with this is that it's far easier to improve your easy days than your hard days, so you end up having no truly easy days and, after a brief improvement, you fall apart.
Third, you can increase the variance (the square of the standard deviation, if you prefer). This can be done by removing the average runs, doing just easy and hard runs, creating a bimodal distribution.
This method is akin to the current idea of polarized training.
Fourth, you can increase the skew [bear with me on this]. A properly skewed distribution would look like this:
This can be done in a number of ways. You could eliminate the easiest runs. You could make the easiest runs harder and make the average runs easier. You could increase the number of hard runs. You could combine any or all of these approaches.
This is similar to the approach commonly advocated for masters runners, to do mostly high-quality workouts, even if it means doing far fewer workouts. It is also what is seen in the peaking/tapering phase of many workout schedules.
The fifth way is to increase the kurtosis, which is a measure of how many outliers there are, which would seem to be exactly what we want. This can be done by racing more, by having a few extremely easy runs (the Long Slow Distance method) or by pushing almost all workouts to close to the average, making anything else an outlier. A properly leptokurtotic (yes, that's the word) distribution looks like this:
So what am I proposing?
All of these approaches should be used, in sequence. Have a period in which you do a lot of average runs, then a period when you don't. Have a period when you drop your easy runs and have one when you introduce one very long extremely easy run. Have a period when you try to improve each element at the same time and a period when you focus on one specific element. And, when in doubt, race more.
It's common for masters runners who've been running for 2-3 years to beat those who've been running 20-30 years and who used to be extremely fast. It would appear that, after a point, running makes people worse at running. The reason usually attached to this is "tissue elasticity" - which is never defined and may be meaningless.
What I think happens is that, while exercised muscle fibers become stronger after slight tears in the tissues from effort, the tendons attached at either end of them, when torn, develop scar tissue cross-linking; this makes them stronger but less pliable and makes one's range of motion decrease. There's a strong correlation with top running speed and hamstring inflexibility, though inflexibility does not lead to speed.
The standard "solution" to this problem is stretching, which is itself problematic. Runners who stretch are more likely to get injured, rather than less likely; for a long time, I thought that this was because runners tend not to stretch if they think they don't need to, but once they get injured, start a stretching routine. It turns out, however, that competitive athletes also tend to stretch competitively, over-doing it and hurting themselves. After a year of classes where instructors told me I'd become more flexible if I went at it slowly and consistently - and didn't - I've come up with a process that's worked for me.
"Tendons shouldn't hurt if you press on them." That's one of the most important lessons I've learned in treating running injuries. If you press on a tendon and it hurts, continued pressure for 20-40 seconds (or deep tissue massage) often causes it to stop hurting; if it hurts so much that you cannot press on it for more than a second or two, you've got an injury. A month ago, I had more than a dozen spots like that, but have worked them out. Foam rolling is a decent way to deal with very minor issues, but I found I need much more pressure (accidentally bruised myself once) to make real change.
Once the tendons have been freed up, the muscles are easier to stretch. The procedure I used was to look up which muscles were connected to the tendons that hurt and then look up stretches recommended specifically for those muscles. The exercises tend to fall into groups, where you could change from one to another in a single motion; I'd move from one to the other and back slowly, which increases range of motion as well as anything I've found.
Does it work? Well, I can touch my toes now and couldn't before and I find that I'd been changing the way I move to compensate for tightness and pain but now can move more freely. There's an odd trade-off: what one gains in mobility, one loses in stability, so it's important to work on balance. Also, fixing one problem often discloses another. I've gone through more than 60 issues in the past month.
Over the past decade, I'd lost my back-kick when running fast because I'd lost some range of motion and my running stride became more stereotyped - if you always run in a slow shuffle, you become efficient at that, but lose some ability to run fast.
Only time will tell if increased mobility will allow me to compete better against the neophyte master runners.
Steve says hi. Like in the last line of a letter (remember when people wrote letters?) between two people who both know him. Like that. Hi.
Oh, and I write about running. 35 years and nearly 600 races thus far.