Learning to Trust Your Training

What’s the “right” pace for the long run?

Used to be, you could look in an article or book and find a chart that would tell you exactly how fast you should run.

Hardly anyone dishes out that kind of advice anymore. (“If your current 10K PR is X, you should run your long runs at Y pace.”) Nowadays, the recommendation is more apt to be based on heart rate.

I’m always harping on “feeling-based” training. That’s because I believe — even if it sounds a bit vague and new-agey — it’s actually much more precise than the training formulas based on heart rate, age, or race pace.

In Fitness Intuition, I tell about a 20-mile run, years ago, where I planned to keep my heart rate at 70% of maximum. Halfway through, I was feeling lousy — I had run out of gas. I slowed to 65% of MHR, and was surprised to find that my spirits rose and my body felt great. I was slogging, but I was doing the right kind of training, and my body rewarded me with joy. In fact, it was so powerful that I was singing aloud as I slogged up the last hill.

Those feelings were a more accurate guide than any training plan or heart monitor.

When people first start running, they sometimes have a hard time trusting their training. They wonder, “Am I training the best possible way?” They’re assaulted by training advice from many directions — books, articles, other runners, etc. How can they know what’s best?

It took me 20 years to learn to trust my training. Runners who can truly learn to “listen to their bodies,” can spare themselves years of doubt.

And it isn’t all that hard.

Running is a research lab. We conduct an experiment — do speedwork, raise our mileage, go for a long run, etc. — and we evaluate the results. If we finish the run feeling “pleasantly tired,” as Arthur Lydiard put it, and if we recover quickly, we can know that the experiment was a success. If we feel battered, drained, and emotionally spent, we can know that our training has not been optimal.

The body never waits until after we’ve finished hammering it to protest. It tells us right away when we’re doing the “wrong” thing. Bad training feels subtly wrong, and good training always feels “just right.” There’s no mistaking these feelings — they are a precise guide.

It doesn’t have to take 20 years to learn to “hear” those signals. All it takes is warming up slowly and listening carefully, and scrupulously doing what they say.

Young runners usually find it harder. They’re often impatient, eager to press the pedal to the metal. That’s where we older guys have an advantage. After 40, the mind becomes more attuned to calm, patient reflection. (You may have noticed that over-40 runners tend to be more consistent in their training. That’s why.) The old guys are more patient, and as a result, the body reveals its secrets to them.

I recently heard from two over-40 runners whose training is similar mine. We don’t run together, but by listening to our bodies , we’ve arrived at some similar conclusions.

Rich Stiller and Dave Cameron have been doing feeling-based training for years. They discovered it long before I did, and they’ve learned to trust those feelings, even when others question their ways.

Some people might think that individualized “feeling-based” training would lead every runner to train differently. But that’s not entirely true. Some features of optimal training will always be the same for everyone — for example, all runners need cycles of effort and rest, sufficient sleep, a healthy diet, etc. Of course, how much effort, rest, and sleep is individual, as are the details of diet.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I learn to listen to my heart’s feelings as a way of adjusting my running pace and distance to what my body can handle on a given day. But I’ve also found that certain things tend to stay the same.

For example, I’ve learned that my body likes a long warmup, at a heart rate no higher than 65-75% of maximum. And during long runs, I find that it never works to go faster than about 77-79% of MHR.

I realize that Rich, Dave, and I are only an “experiment of three,” but I think it’s remarkable how similar our training has become, based on our years of experimentation.

At 62, Rich has been running for over 40 years. Here’s an email that Rich sent last week:

George,

I am enjoying the book. It resonates.

I always had a problem explaining my training philosophy to others when I was a competitive runner (and even these days when I am not). I wish I had had this book back then even though Joe’s LSD book [Joe Henderson’s book, Long, Slow Distance — The Humane Way to Train] sufficed in a pinch. [Follow the link to this wonderful out-of-print book, which Joe has generously placed online.]

I have been doing time trials of 1600 meters to 3200 meters every 2 or 3 weeks and have been slowly watching my times come down. It’s all for the pure fun of it. But otherwise I run every slowly 3-4 days week especially in the beginning third of my runs. My 3200 meter has dropped from the 14:30’s in March, all the way down to 13:13 last Saturday. Someone told me that I ought to do some speedwork and see what I can really do. I shrugged and told them that this “ is” what I can do. Hard running would just send me the other way.

I can remember one very competitive runner telling me that I would never amount to much if I trained that way (lots of slow to medium miles and very little speedwork outside of races).

Two years later he had to endure my being ranked several places ahead of him in NorCal Running Review in 1977. Luckily we were and still are good friends so we survived all of that.

Rich

Dave Cameron also sent an email last week in which he described how he trains. The first three paragraphs are copied from a post that Dave sent to the Ultra list:

One interesting point is that George wrote: If I go even just a little bit faster, say 80%, the feeling changes. It feels different – very slightly stressful. Running at the higher pace, I’m aware that I could finish my long run, but it doesn’t feel as if I would receive the same benefits. At 77-79%, it feels as if I’m exactly poised, giving the body just enough work to develop endurance. At the faster pace, it feels as if I’m pushing too hard – I’m running a “slow race.” I’m tearing-down instead of building-up.

I’m the same way. When I’m at my best, I do about 90% of my miles at a pace that peaks at 77-79% of my runs… and its a buildup to that after the warmup. The other 10% is fast; faster than would feel comfortable, to get speed. I’ve found that (for a marathon) I can get to about 90-95% of my potential with the base training George mentions in the link; the other 5-10% is from the speed workouts he cites.

(Great article on speed running.)

I loved your paragraph on after the warmup, falling into 77-79% max HR… I’m exactly the same; so we’re an experiment of two. I’m 44, but have been running for 29 years. My max HR has fallen by 20 beats or so since I was a freshman in college, but the percentage ratio has stayed the same. The main difference is that the warmup to get there takes longer now. And, of course, 78% of max used to be 8:00 min/mi pace 15 years ago, and now its 9:00 min/mi pace (on average). All tied to that I’m running at a lesser heart rate; or mostly.

Anyway… I’ve upped my mileage — if I run 12 miles tomorrow (Sunday), I’ll have four straight weeks of 80 mpw. Something I don’t think I’ve ever done. 90% of the runs are at or below 80% of MHR. Usually, I can intuitively tell when I get over that, and back off. Experience has told me that even if I spend 2 minutes at 81% of MHR, I may as well be running 90% of MHR. It takes me back for a few days. The 10% over is planned speedwork.

Hopefully, with all this, I’ll hit my marathon goal of 3:30 for October. It’ll be tough, but possible.

Dave

Intuition has more than one dimension. Sometimes those calm, dispassionate feelings will tell me how fast or far to run. Other times, they’ll lead me to a book or article where I’ll find information I need. I suspect that, in the long haul, my intuition is revealing fundamental, unchanging facts that could help all runners. I wonder how many other old guys are training like Dave, Rich, and I.

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