Saturday, July 27, 2013

It Ain't Natural: Tips for Long Distance Running

A typical view of the weather
over the last few weeks.
Today: cloud.
What the...?

Saturday is typically the day before my long run and so I've always felt a little conflicted about what run to do on Saturdays, given this fact. I'm certainly not going to do a speed workout. I also don't want to run anything longer than 10 km, since I'll be out forever the next day anyway.

Today, I decided on an unmonitored 6 km. (My definition of unmonitored: without any form of heart rate, pace, or distance measurement device i.e. sans Garmin and heart rate monitor). So I'm out there today, fully meaning to take it easy, and I realize that I'm running pretty fast - or, at least I think I'm running pretty fast. I mean, there's no way to verify this since I'm unmonitored. But it feels fast, anyway.

This got me thinking about a conversation I had recently with a friend of mine. He's one of those guys who is a natural athlete. Like, he may have never really done a sport before but as soon as he gets into it, he just naturally kicks ass at it right away. Basically, one of those really annoying types. 

... so he's just recently taken up running, and is (of course) excelling at it already. But we get to talking about how he finds it challenging to run any slower - or rather, that it's hard to slow from his natural pace. 

Out there today, unmonitored, I was definitely running my natural pace; this is the pace where my running feels really good. But this pace, for me, is also unsustainable. I discovered this back in 2009 when I was training for my first marathon and, as I mentioned in my interview with Running Toward the Prize: "When ramping up my base mileage, I found I was completely exhausted after running distances that I had never before accomplished in training... I'd be tired for days."

This next statement, perhaps, is more a reminder for me than it is for you guys, particularly as I've been known to harp on about not being a speedy runner: I am definitely not slow. I can run a decent pace, and I think I proved that (mostly to myself) at the BMO Vancouver Half last year. However, by pushing my pace in that race I also ended up hurt and unable to run the full I'd planned on running that fall.

Talking recently about natural pace and then having that epiphany on today's run really made me think about how I needed to alter my running when I started to burn out during training for that first marathon. At the time, one of the Team Diabetes trainers provided some really great advice which was vital in salvaging my training plan; without it, I'm not sure I would have successfully finished that race. I wanted to share some of those tips with you here, in case you find yourself struggling to complete longer distances and you're not sure why. Here is what she told me:

  • If you want to do heart-rate training first figure out your maximum heart rate. This is equal to 220 minus your age. During your runs, train within 60-80% of your maximum heart rate; long runs should be in the lower end of that range. As your fitness level increases, it will take more exertion on your part to get your heart rate in the zone. Note: fat is burned as energy after about 30 minutes of running and maximum fat burning happens between 55-60 % of maximum heart rate. Work outs above training heart rates burn more glycogen for energy and cause more lactic acid build up and muscle cramping and result in slower recovery.
  • It is always best to focus on completing a distance the first time you attempt it. Work with your current fitness level and build from there. By pushing yourself beyond what your body can recover from week to week, you are setting yourself up for injury and disappointment. It takes many years to build a strong base for long distances and to be the person that will be running marathons in their 80s! You should be able to talk comfortably during your long runs. If you are running alone, try singing occasionally to check in with yourself.
  • Specifically regarding marathon training for those new to long distance running: Your long run pace should be between 8:30 to 9:30 minutes per kilometre if you are following the "to complete" program. If you are going faster you are stressing your body to the point that it cannot recover by the next quality workout.   
  • Walk breaks work! Remember to take walk breaks from the beginning (she's referring here to John Stanton's walk-run method). Do not wait until you think you need them.  If you get close to the end of your workout and want to skip the last walk break, go ahead, but be sure to take them early, even if you are feeling you don't need them. They are built in as mini recovery periods to speed the overall recovery of the stress that endurance running puts on the body.


Sidebar: my natural-athlete-newbie-running-friend, after apparently making some snide remark about what a slow runner I am, apologized about it a few days later. I didn't actually notice he'd been a smart ass, but was still grateful that he took the effort to make reparations. Kudos to you for not being a douchebag runner!

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