Running Magic

It’s moving, gratifying, and happy-making when we succeed in discovering a fundamental principle of running.

It’s lovely to rediscover something that works every time – that we can rely on, again and again.

I had that experience last Saturday. Actually, I rediscovered something I’d learned long ago. It’s amazing how easily we forget first principles. But although it was old news, it was no less wonderful.

It started as one of my worst runs ever. It was so bad that I actually thought the unthinkable: “I hate running!” What I meant, of course, was “I’m absolutely hating this run.”

I was baffled. I was rested, healthy, and reasonably fit. Clearly, something was wrong. And as I reflected on the possible reasons, I realized it was my own fault.

As often happens when my training goes off the rails, I had followed a line of perfectly logical but misguided reasoning.

I’d realized that I feel best when I do most runs at a moderately brisk pace, 75% to 79% of max heart rate. That’s well within the “aerobic” range, but at the high end.

In the past, I’ve tried various systems that recommended running more slowly. Philip Maffetone, for example, recommends doing slow base training for many months, at no faster than about 70% of MHR, followed by 6 to 8 weeks of intense speedwork aimed at a big goal race. When I tried Maffetone’s system for eight months, it simply didn’t work – contrary to expectations, my slow “MAF” (maximum aerobic function) pace didn’t get faster. (In fairness, thousands of runners have had success with Maffetone’s training.)

I feel better and get fit quicker when I ramp up the pace to just under 80%, after a warmup. Going above 80% shortens the run – it uses up stored aerobic resources, instead of building them.

Why did I feel lousy? What was my mistake? I had let logic and reason convince me that by shortening the warmup I could spend more time at a faster pace and get more out of my training.

At the start of the run, I quickly raised my heart rate to 75% and it felt jangly, unpleasant, rushed, uncomfortable – against nature.

And my body and heart protested. My spirit simply wasn’t into the run. That’s when I prayed and expressed my feelings frankly. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in 40 years of experiments with spiritual running, it’s that God doesn’t answer unless we’re honest with Him. So I was really getting it off my chest and expressing my feelings with a breezy frankness.

If this is what running’s about, this horrible disharmony, I thought, I don’t want any part of it.

I had planned to do speedwork, but I simply couldn’t imagine going to the track and running even harder.

It’s amazing, how easily we forget. In Fitness Intuition, I dedicate several chapter to the value of a long warmup.

I slowed to a moderate 65% to 67% of MHR, accepting the inevitable, and feeling a little dispirited. Must I really slog so slowly at the start of every run? How meaningless! Where was the good? This wasn’t “real training!” It seemed like such a copout, the easy way out.

And yet within mere minutes of dropping the pace, I began to feel an uncanny but clear and powerful, enjoyable sense of “rightness.” Always, I’ve considered those “right” feelings to be a clear sign that what I’m doing is not only right for my body, but in tune with a higher wisdom that has my total welfare in mind.

The good feelings actually got stronger. It was quite an amazing change. Where, only minutes before, my running had been out of harmony – out of hozhro, as the Navaho (Dineh) put it – now, I was beginning to feel good on all levels. My body’s happiness was spreading to my heart and mind and spirit. I was thinking more clearly, I was more relaxed, and I was happier. I began to feel positive about the run. Perhaps if I continued to do what the higher guidance told me, speaking through those “right” feelings, I could actually go to the track and do speedwork.

I realized, for the umpteenth time, that that “right” feeling is the key to all training. That if we aren’t able to run enjoyably in the moment at 65%, 70%, 75% – if we think that “real” running doesn’t start until we’re going faster – then we’ll never suddenly be able to get in harmony, in the “zone,” at 90%. It’s much easier to find those good feelings at 65%, during a long, slow warmup, and when we can get there solidly during the warmup those feelings tend to stick.

Slow is the necessary base for fast. We can never get to fast without going through slow. In order to be able to do speedwork with joy, we must warm up slowly. In order to be able to periodize our training and set a PR in a goal race, we must do several months of slow base training. And in order to do speedwork year-round and continue to improve, we must balance a small amount of fast with a much larger volume of slow: we must do roughly 85% to 90% of our miles slowly. Finally, in order to get top benefits from speedwork, we must do the first intervals, repeats, or the mile of a tempo run relatively slowly. It’s how the body works, and there’s no getting around it.

After running at under 67% for perhaps 50 minutes, I tentatively picked up the pace to 75%, to see if it would feel “right.” But my body said, “No – not yet.” Five minutes later, I tried again and this time it felt right. I stayed at 75% to 77% for about 10 minutes, and then I arrived at the track.

I decided to continue to honor the principle of gradual change. I would do short intervals first. And I would do the first intervals slowly. I would start with several 100s, then try some 200s, and if they felt right, do some 400s.

The 100s felt wonderful – light and happy and joyful. I ran six of them, resting on the turns by jogging slowly, and feeling harmonious and in-tune all the way. And so I moved on and did four 200s.

But the 200s felt much less “right” (I was okay up to about 140 meters) – and the 400 was a complete bust. I recently had a 10-week layoff with bronchitis, followed by a 30-day juice fast to restore my health. My body was telling me that I wasn’t all the way back.

I believe that if Arthur Lydiard and Bill Bowerman had both been standing beside the track, timing my workout and monitoring my form and fatigue, they’d have told me, after a couple of 200s, to pack it in. That’s the kind of coaches they were – never dogmatic or rigidly attached to a “system.” They always assigned each runner the training that the he could handle on the day –they always adapted the day’s workout to the runner’s state.

Well, guess what? The same wisdom is built-in. As I argue in Fitness Intuition, the body and spirit both speak to us through the heart’s subtle feelings. If you want to run well, stay out of trouble, and avoid the kind of frustration I experienced last Saturday, follow your heart.

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