In his wonderful book, Lore of Running, Tim Noakes, MD recommends a devious approach to training. In chapter 5, he lists the “15 Laws of Training.”
Law number 6 is: “Achieve as Much as Possible on a Minimum of Training” (Lore of Running, 4th Ed., p. 291).
Noakes believes people underestimate the role that talent plays in determining running potential:
Part of the macho image of running is built on the myth that the top runners and Ironman triathletes achieve greatness by enduring training programs quite beyond the level of the rest of us. The best runners, the world would have us believe, are those who train the hardest. Nowhere do you ever read about the many great athletic performances that have been achieved on very little training nor, as described in chapter 6, about how well these top runners perform even when they train very little….
But it is clear that genetic ability has more to do with why the great athletes beat us than their hard training, and there is no earthly way in which training can reverse the physiological realities and thus reduce the chasm that divides us from them….
For example, who ever records that exceptional runners like Walter George and Alf Shrubb achieved quite remarkable performances on very low mileage? George ran a mile in 4:10.6 and a 16-km run [9.92 mi] in 49:29 on little more than 3 km of training per day…. The outstanding performances of the black African runners, from Kip Keino to Matthews Temane, have also been achieved on relatively little training in which high quality but relatively low volume has been emphasized.
I find this to be sadly true. A friend of mine, a carpenter who had never trained, ran 20 miles down Mt. Kilauea with no training or problems. Another friend consistently ran the marathon in 2:37 to 2:45 while training under 40 mpw.
On the other hand, it’s kind of heartening. Wow – golly – if I only had that itty-bitty extra ingredient – talent – my current mileage would carry me to a sub-50 10-mile! And – snicker, snicker – look at all those dopes running 60 mpw, hoping their marathon time will drop from 3:05 to 2:45.
Of course, I’m being perverse. Joking aside, what matters in running isn’t absolutes (“2:05 is good, 3:05 is terrible!”). The best parts of running come through personal improvement, regardless of our naive gifts. Those fatties you saw walking a half-marathon for breast cancer? Yeah, they were getting joy.
If I were an absolutist, I’d retire. At my age, running is a slow slide: a 5:00 marathon now, 6:00 when I’m 70, and so on down the dreary years. The last of a man’s seven ages is a poor time to take oneself seriously. Ninety-year-old marathoner Ruth Rothfarb showed a wise, wry perspective when she famously quipped: “You lose a lot of speed between 80 and 90.”
A runner’s year is a sine-wave: up in summer, down in winter. But at any age we can find joy in the annual build-up. And we can be grateful for any shortcuts we find.
Age turns us into gleeful cheaters. Last week I reported how I re-learned that the body likes a long warmup. Since then, I’ve added two more items to my bag of sneaky tricks.
The first is only marginally connected to running.
In my spare time I work full time as a writer and editor. Recently, I got a call to interview for a writing job at a tech start-up in Palo Alto.
There’s a long and winding story behind what happened. I won’t go deeply into it. Suffice it to say that several years ago, I realized that I am on this earth for only three reasons: to love God, to serve Him, and to live simply. So, when I was invited to interview with this up-and-coming, amply funded, flossy, extremely sharp tech company, I told God, “I don’t want to do this for any other reason than to please You. I just want to be a simple person, love You, serve others, forget myself, and offer myself as a channel for Your love and joy.” That’s how I think on good days, when I’m not loping after some fascinating scent that ends up leading me down a rabbit hole.
So forgive me, but when I write about running I’m often tempted to swerve into the spiritual. It’s unavoidable. Years ago, I discovered years ago that it’s all connected: body, heart, will, mind, and soul, and that the heart is where they all connect. The heart is Grand Central Station for a variety of interesting things. Not only is it where the body speaks to us of its needs, it’s where we’re able to commune with a higher guidance. The world’s spiritual traditions are unanimous in saying that God watches the heart.
Indulge me while I change lanes one more time. I’ve fallen into a habit of fasting one day a week on orange juice, and the first interview fell on my fasting day. What I do is squeeze a bunch of oranges the night before the fast and freeze the juice in plastic containers. (Here I go cheating again, claiming to fast when really I’m eating gelato.)
Anyway, the morning before the interview I found myself eating a ton of frozen OJ, about a quart and a half. “Why am I doing this?” I pondered. “And yet, it feels so right!”
The interview ended up consisting of not one but three in-depth talks, lasting three hours, with two sharp software developers and the head of the company’s programming department. I needed all the brain power I could get – and the OJ helped substantially.
In fact, my spiritual teacher observed that OJ “stimulates the brain.” I’d found this to be true, never more so than on this day. My brain was on overdrive, my IQ probably 20 points higher. So, forget your Jolt Cola, OJ is the goods.
After 40 years of bothering God, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that anything we give to Him is blessed. My best runs have been those where I wasn’t thinking to get something out of it, but where I ran gratefully, with a sense of giving it all back to God: the beautiful outdoors, my healthy body, the inner good feelings.
Funny story. In 1997, I ran the Western States 100-Mile race. Or I tried. During the race I was silently talking to my spiritual teacher all day, and when I reached Michigan Bluff after 16 hours I was in trouble. I had begun peeing thick brown stuff, a sign of rhabdomyolysis, where muscle cells break and leak myoglobin into the blood, where it can clog the kidneys and cause unfortunate outcomes such as death. So as I was approaching the aid station, and feeling poorly, I told my spiritual teacher, “I’m willing to continue, but what should I do.” I heard his voice: “This is not healthy for your body.” So I dropped, with few regrets.
I had let me hair grow long before Western States, more or less as a joke. I wanted to go to the start looking like a gnarly old mountain runner. Afterward, I wondered if I should cut it. I thought, “I don’t really like having long hair, but I’m signed up to give workshops on the spiritual aspects of running, and people might relate better to this aging-hippie look than to my former buzz cut. So even though I’m not crazy about it, I’ll do it for God.”
A couple of weeks later, my spiritual teacher was in town. The moment he saw me, he said, “George, I like your hair.” I wondered, “What the dickens is he talking about? Why is he talking about my hair?” When I saw him again the next day, he smiled and said, “George, I really like your hair.” It still didn’t dawn on me, but then I realized, aha, that I had given my hair to God.
If there’s a time when you need to be mentally sharp, my counsel would be to pray for guidance and perhaps hit the OJ. But for maximum effect, be sure to buy organic oranges and squeeze them fresh. Store-bought OJ barely works. Also, don’t thaw the juice and guzzle it, as you’ll get hypoglycemic, which is counterproductive. Frozen OJ goes down slowly, because you have to chip it out of the container.
Okay, that’s tip one. The second is more closely related to running.
A while back, I related how I found that I felt stronger on long runs if I ate an omelet the night before. I sensed that I was on the right track – that my body needed something in the eggs, but I wasn’t satisfied tthat I’d arrived at the best formula. After my recent illness, I abandoned the pre-run omelet and experimented with eating fish the night before a long run, thinking to avoid saturated fat. But it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t working. So, the evening before last Saturday’s long run, I drank a medium-size glass of buttermilk (regular milk bloats me), and a couple hours later I ate a two-egg omelet, made with a little raw goat cheese.
Long story short: my endurance the following day was phenomenal. I’ve been rebuilding after 10 weeks of almost no running (due to bronchitis and a long juice fast), and I had worked up to running an hour and a half on Saturdays. But I felt stuck – my legs felt trashed after the run, and I didn’t feel strong. Yet this week I ran 2:15, climbed 600 feet, and felt very strong all the way, with none of that aching, empty feeling in my legs.
Further tests are, of course, in order, but I thought it might be worth mentioning in case you’d like to give milk and eggs a try.
Here are some other sneaky tricks I’ve gathered.
- As you get older, particularly after 55, try to wrap your mind around the notion of having just one “main run” per week, and make it different on alternate weeks. You might try a four-week cycle: 1. Medium long run, 2. Medium-long run with 20 minutes tempo, 3. Long-long run at moderate pace, 4. Track speedwork after a long warmup.
You’ll be surprised how good you feel when you put most of your energy into the one weekly run that really counts – and how much progress you make. It’s the very hard, very easy principle: go like blazes, or dawdle. Do push it occasionally. For instance, push distance one week and speed the next. After age 40, intensity helps preserve VO2Max, muscle elasticity, leg turnover, and strength.
- Track your progress. Always know what you’re doing. Never run by whim or emotion. (Don’t worry – there’ll be chaos; no need to make your own.)
- On long runs, go places where it’s an adventure to run. A change of scene will put fresh life in your running. There are special places where there are good vibes in the ground – here in the Bay Area, the best vibes are on Mt. Tamalpais, just north of the City. The Native Americans considered Mt. Tam holy, and they were right – there’s a reason why ultrarunning legend Ann Trason loved to train on Mt. Tam. On the other hand, there are places (and races) where the ground feels like hot liquid asphalt – Bermuda Triangles where the Furies beneath the pavement chortle as they grasp your ankles with their tiring, dispiriting tentacles.
- Continually adjust your diet to your exercise schedule. A runner’s diet should change on hard days. Weekdays are for salad, fruit, beans, greens, nuts, lean fish, etc. Hard days are for eggs, milk, and other heavy-duty builders. The body does need saturated fat, only not very much. And the body doesn’t need starchy carbs at all. If you can give up all but a cup a day of bread, rice, or potatoes, you’ll find it easy to get skinny and stay there. You can get all the carbs you need before hard runs from dates, raisins, bananas, etc., and use gels and powders during the run.