Balanced Training

I ran my cell phone through the washer today. Again. I arranged to look at a phone that someone had advertised on Craiglist. As I drove the 20 miles to a neighborhood near downtown San Jose, I felt a weird sense of dislocation, of why-am-I-doing-this. I gave the man $30 and took the phone to the Sprint store to have it switched to my account, only to find that I’d been scammed. When the Sprint guy punched in the phone’s identifier code, the computer responded “Fraudulent!” When I tried calling the guy, his phone was disconnected.

Some parts of training are the same for everyone. Whether we’re Joe Jogger or Haile Gebrselassie, we must think about effort and rest. These count as much for you and I as for Paula Radcliffe or the soccer-playing kids next door. Not a difficult concept. But applying it is a different story. It can be hard to get the balance just right. How far? How fast? How often?

I struggled with these questions for a long time. For 12 years, from about 1992 to 2004, I ran a solid 40 miles a week, and I suspect I was marginally overtrained the whole time, because the balance was wrong. I was running three times a week: 10, 10, and 20 miles. Theoretically, it was a fine schedule, but it was wrong for my individual abilities. And in training, it’s the individual that counts. Instead of running hard, easy, easy, I was running hard, medium, medium, and my body never was able to fully recover.

In Fitness Intuition, I tell how Nature tried in various ways to get me on the right track. During a 24-mile run, I fell in beside a young triathlete who told me how his personal trainer had urged him to put 90 percent of his effort into the sessions that really count, and make the other workouts very easy.

During an ultramarathon, I spoke with a woman who was famous for running three or four ultras per month. When I asked how she trained, she replied, “I don’t.” On weekdays she ran not at all, but she ran a race of 50K or longer most weekends.

During a 24-hour race, a young male ultrarunner told me he never trained, per se, that he just ran lots of races. He added that he’d only made real progress when he started giving his body “massive amounts of rest.” He found that he could go up to two weeks between his very long runs without losing ultramarathon-specific condition.

I learned about balance also from Clarence Bass. Clarence has maintained a high degree of fitness for 55+ years. In his teens, he won a New Mexico state sprint title, and he’s won world titles in bodybuilding. Yet it was only after he reached 60 that he experienced the power of balanced training. His simple formula? It’s similar to the method that Nature tried to suggest to me: intense exercise, balanced by dramatic amounts of rest.

Clarence only lifts weights four times a month. Of course, he lifts big weights, and he lifts intensely. He focuses on full-body lifts such as deadlifts and squats, plus athletic lifts such as power-cleans and power-snatches. He has two routines, which he does on alternate weeks. On the in-between days, he recovers with two hours of easy-paced walking. Once a week, he does intense cardio on a stationery bike, treadmill, or Concept rowing ergonometer. (At 60+, Clarence achieved a number-three world ranking in Concept ergonometer competition.)

Clarence reports that since he began exercising less frequently but more intensely and giving his body more rest, he’s made better progress than at any other time in his life.

It took me years to catch on to the need for balance in my running. I’m now training more like Clarence, and I’m enjoying it a lot. I run intensely just once a week (long or hard), and the rest of the time I run very easily (no faster than about 65-67% of maximum heart rate).

Is it the perfect training system? Predictably, every new experiment opens a Pandora’s box of fresh questions. Hmm…how long should I run? How fast? How much rest do I need? Knowing the big, broad theory is a good start, but putting it into practice takes deep attention. Given how hard my weekend workouts are, the margin for error is slim.

Two weeks ago, I ran three hours with 2000’ of climb, and near the end I threw in a mile at tempo pace. The next week, it was clear that my legs were only good for two hours at a very moderate pace, with no speeding. This is in harmony with something that the sports physiologists tell us: it takes two weeks for protein synthesis to be completed after a single hard workout.

Nature isn’t only teaching me to be a better runner. It’s also helping me learn to listen. It’s an art that the best runners master. In the words of Bruce Fordyce (winner of eight consecutive Comrades ultramarathons), they’re “cautious almost to the point of paranoia.”

The body speaks to us. Nature speaks to us. But it isn’t Nature’s fault if we don’t listen.

Now, if I had only listened to the still, small voice that tried to tell me, as I loaded the clothes into the washer, “Are you sure you haven’t left the cell phone in the lower pocket of those cargo shorts…”

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