The Runner's Dilemma
by Steven M. Ledbetter
7 minute read
It’s around this time of year that I start getting “the running emails.” These are well meaning, enthusiastic potential clients who have signed up for a marathon, half-marathon, or tough mudder-type of event and are usually coming to me for a simple training program. Running was one of my first fitness loves and arguably, the sport I excelled at the fastest [pun], but it was also the only sport that almost killed me. So I feel the need to be honest with my running clients. I can help you finish; I can help make you fast; but before I do, you’re going to have to answer some tough questions. Why do you want to do this? Running is a noble sport and excelling at it is a noble goal. Marathons have become a right of passage among the sedentary middle-class ever since the jogging craze of the 1970s. Most of the people I know who run marathons use them as an easy, big, external motivator, not that there is anything wrong with that. They have all the appeal of a lofty challenge with a deadline, but with a slight problem that I realized on my first marathon… when after almost 5 hours I crossed the finish line with a very nice 65 year old lady. Anyone can run a half-marathon. Almost anyone can run a full marathon. Most people can perform these feats with nearly zero training (as I did the first time), however they will hate themselves in the morning (as I most certainly did). The purpose of the training is to mitigate the damage you absorb and have to deal with for subsequent weeks, which will likely be significant if you’re coming straight off the couch. I’m not saying, “don’t do it.” I’m just trying to tell you what you’re in for and explore your motivation. As Dan John asks in Intervention, “how will this goal improve and enlarge your life?”
Are you doing this to lose weight? Bad news: ask your friends who’ve run marathons and they’ll tell you the dark secret that most slightly overweight people who take up marathon training actually gain weight during training. Turns out all that running makes you hungry and as I’ve said before, you can’t outrun a donut. Especially if you keep telling yourself you deserve it because of all those miles you’re running now.
Are you doing this to get healthier? Look, until you get really good at it, running hurts and will wear you the hell down. Sure you get the endorphin high that runners love, but once you come down form that it’s all shin splints and achilles tendonosis. And that’s not including all the crazy stuff that happens when your cortisol levels creep up. Sex drive? Not anymore. A cold and a sore throat you can’t shake for weeks at a time? You betcha. Diarrhea every time you go for a long, slow run? Yeah, your marathoner friends don’t tell you about that do they?
Are you doing this to feel better about yourself? Achieving big, external goals is something that appeals to most people. Who doesn’t appreciate all the fanfare around a graduation or a wedding? Our society is set up to reward this type of success, but as most people who have achieved those goals will tell you, it fades fast. People who’ve run a marathon rarely talk about “the crash,” but it’s something you’ll hear a lot about from serial marathoners. Starting the day after I finished my first marathon, I went into a deep funk that lasted for about a month. I’m talking commercial grade depression. It wasn’t just the huge hit to my system that 26.2 can be, it was something else. When I talked to other marathoners about it they told me, “yeah, that’s why you gotta start training for the next one!” When you dedicate your focus and energy to a big external goal, it can be hard to live without one. Your identity becomes wrapped up in those external goals (“I’m a marathoner!”) instead of the joy that comes from doing something for the sake of doing it, (“I enjoy running”). This is not a necessarily a bad thing if you plan on running a marathon every 3 weeks (like the lady with whom I crossed the finish line), but for us mortal humans, having more subtle forms of internal motivation is usually more sustainable and fulfilling.
Running is a beautiful sport and I’m not saying these things happen to everyone; I’m not saying that it happens every time. But running is a skill. When you’re learning it, expect a learning curve. I love running. It is one of the great loves of my life (although sadly a love that is unrequited). But you should take the time to think about what you’re getting into. There are pros and cons to relying on big, external motivations to keep doing a sport that could be detrimental to your health and longevity. There are other ways to lose weight, stay healthy, and feel better about yourself. You shouldn’t run to get fit; you should to be fit to run.
Still Interested? Let’s Talk Training
With all that being said, I train runners. Lots of them. I am not here to judge what people want to do with their bodies, I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting into and I want to make sure that we can find a way to make this goal fit into and enlarge your life. Which brings me to how I train runners. It’s not traditional. It’s not even optimal. I make no claims about having the fastest runners or the best runners (although all their times have improved under my charge, I can’t claim to be the sole cause), but I do train the happiest runners (a claim I will proudly back up). If you’re still interested, keep reading because I’m about to give away all my secrets for free.
1. We’re going to find a style that fits you. Some coaches with a lot more clout than me claim that POSE is the only way to run and all other running is wrong. I’ll leave the biomechanical arguments to the kinesiologists, but I’ve run POSE and before it nearly severed my achilles tendons, I liked it a lot. I still teach POSE, but I’m flexible about how people end up putting one foot in front of the other. With novice runners, I work up to 25 miles a week of dedicated practice on running form. I used to call this “base milage,” but I kept noticing people checked out mentally and just plodded. This is practice people. Make those steps count.
**2. We’re sticking to 3x a week. **Once they work up to it, my runners don’t run more than 30 miles a week. Yes, even for marathons. For distance runners this means:
Hill Sprints. Run up a hill as fast as you can and take as long as you need to recover (3-5 min or until your heart rate drops to a resting level). Repeat this until your times drop below 90% of your best time, then STOP. If you keep going you’re just training to go slower!
Intervals. 30-40 min of hard running below your goal pace alternating with jogging so slowly it feels like walking. I have my clients mix up these intervals to work on their perceived areas of weakness, so one week they might be doing mile repeats, another they might run as far as they can in 20 minutes, jog for 10, then repeat once more for 10.
The Long… Slow… Run… The bread and butter of endurance training. I cannot stress SLOW enough. 60-65% of your max heart rate or so slowly that you can breathe through your nose the entire time. An old russian trick is to do this run with a dollar bill between your lips so you can’t breathe through your mouth. Yes, it’s that slow. Runners hate this run, but after training this way once, every runner I know begrudgingly admits that doing LSD this slowly was the key to their success and ultimate recovery after race day.
**3. We’re never running junk miles. **Every run has a purpose. Notice every run is either easy or hard; no run is “medium.”
**4. We’re gonna get you strong. **Strong runners are resilient runners. If you can carry heavy loads for distance, I’m far less concerned about you propelling your body for longer distances.