Famous Runner Warms Up

Well, well. US 10,000-meter Olympian Jeff Galloway likes a long warmup.

From “Happiness and Running,” a January 16, 2009 post on Jeff’s blog:

For years, I couldn’t figure out why I felt great on a run one day and terrible the next. I now believe that most of the enjoyment comes from pacing the run gently enough – for the conditions. Even on the tough workout days, as a teenager, I always felt better after the run. Now I know that the “endorphin glow” at the end, can be enjoyed during the run – if there are enough walk breaks, taken frequently enough.

If you’ve rootled through the archive, you’re aware that I devote lots of time to praising the long warmup. Galloway and I are on the same page. But let me digress.

Sports scientists have known for a long time that elite runners are able to run comfortably at a very high percentage of their maximum heart rate. In Fitness Intuition I describe one of the first studies in this area:

David L. Costill, Ph.D., a legendary sports physiologist, tested former marathon world record holder Derek Clayton (2:08:33) in his lab. Costill describes the experiment in his book, Running: The Athlete Within:

When asked to run 10 km on the treadmill at a pace that equaled his best marathon pace (4 min: 53 s per mile), he [Clayton] was able to do it with apparent ease, carrying on a conversation with everyone in the laboratory. Nearing the end of the run we asked him if he could continue the run at that pace. He responded by saying, “Yeh, I can run another hour if you want me to.” Of course we thought he might be putting on a show for the other runners in the room, so we drew a blood sample from his arm immediately after the run to determine his lactate level, an indication of running effort. To our surprise, his blood lactate level was only 1.8 mmol/liter, a value one might expect to find in someone who had not been exercising. Nevertheless, when we calculated his oxygen use during the run it averaged over 85% of his VO2max….

This ability to exercise at a high percentage of one’s VO2max for long periods without accumulating lactic acid is not fully understood, though it appears that this quality is a function of the muscular adaptations during training.

Overlooking that the lactic acid theory of fatigue has since been discredited, Clayton’s ability to hold a relaxed conversation at 4:53 pace is amazing. This is a guy you would not want to invite to “go for a jog.”….Costill notes: “Some of the best runners we have tested were able to run at 75 to 85% of VO2max during a marathon. [Alberto] Salazar, [Bill] Rodgers, and [Grete] Waitz were able to run rather comfortably for up to 30 min at 86 to 90% of their VO2max values. So champion runners might have a higher capacity for tolerating high levels of stress than those of us who run in the middle or back of the pack.”

Am I the only runner who salivates at the thought of being able to run for long distances at, say, my personal pedal-to-the-metal 5K pace without discomfort or premature fatigue?

Not too many years ago, I was running across the Golden Gate Bridge on a Saturday, and idly praying. I wondered mentally what it would take to be able to run fast comfortably, as Haile Gebrselassie and other great marathoners can. Would I have to train 100 miles per week and do thrice-weekly hard speedwork?

In Fitness Intuition, I describe how my prayer was answered on the bridge the following weekend (see the chapter titled ” The 96% Run“). After a long warmup, I was able to run about 4 miles at above 90% of HR, effortlessly.

It was a wonderful experience – my body was sailing along, yet my mind was observing from a level of calm, bemused detachment, very focused and still.

I noted that it took several elements to prepare my body and mind to have this experience: (1) a long, easy warmup (an hour and 20 minutes), (2) calmly and persistently focusing my attention, (3) harmonizing the feelings of my heart (by singing silently), and of course, (4) several months of fairly hard training (30-40 miles per week, including a weekly 20-minute tempo run at 85% to 92% of max heart rate).

Fascinated by the experience, I returned to the bridge on successive Saturdays to see if I could duplicate it. I had no trouble running fast easily, but those runs weren’t nearly as satisfying – they lacked the elements of heart and soul.

I was going through the motions, working mechanically, but my ego got in the way – I wanted it too much, and that desire prevented me from absorbing my awareness fully in the moment. My craving tilted me out of the present and killed the joy.

Based on this and many subsequent experiments, I believe that well-trained runners of all ages and abilities can experience what it’s like to run their personal best pace with minimal discomfort. And, like Jeff Galloway, I’m convinced that a key element of the equation is the long warmup.

The body needs lots of time to prepare to run fast. In hundreds of runs, I’ve found that my body is always  grateful when I let it warm up slowly, and that it expresses its gratitude by letting me run fast easily.

Once the body is fully warmed up, an interesting thing happens. Conditions permitting – you’ve had enough sleep, you’re eating well, you aren’t bombed by stress, etc. – you find that you’re suddenly able to slip effortlessly into a higher gear. The word that comes to mind is “falling ” – it’s like dropping, feather-like, into a faster pace. The well-rested, fully warmed-up, fully recovered, well-trained body loves to run hard. Hm, that’s a lot of “ifs” right there; but let’s assume all those conditions are true.

A brief example from a long run two weeks ago. I warmed up for 70 minutes, no faster than 70% of MHR, then ran 25 minutes at 91% to 93%. I can’t say that it was effortless – I was a bit tired – but it was incomparably easier than the weekly tempo runs I formerly did, after warming up for just 10-15 minutes.

Those runs were painful, even though my heart rate rarely rose past 90%. I could seldom hold the pace for 20 minutes, and I nearly always slowed at the end. Nevertheless, those tempo runs did bring results: a lower resting heart rate, and the ability to run hard easily after a long warmup. But they were never fun.

In Fitness Intuition, I mention two elite athletes who knew about the magic of a long warmup. Former US 50-mile record holder Bob Deines would warm up for 80 minutes before a 10,000-meter track race. And six-time Tour de France winner Eddy Merckx rode an easy 20-30 miles (60 to 90 minutes) before each Tour stage.

I was excited to discover the secret of comfortable, fast running. Yet, at first, it was torture to run slowly for so long. Why did I have to slog, while other runners were blazing away after a minimal warmup? Yet I invariably found that I could go farther and faster if I let the body warm up in its own time. And those runs were frequently accompanied by wonderful feelings of wholeness and joy.

Later, I began to discover the unique pleasures of the slow start. I found rich rewards in absorbing my mind and heart in the present moment – enjoying the new scene that greeted me at each turn of the trail, humming a silent song, etc.

Galloway blames the good feelings on endorphins. He believes that inserting walking breaks allows endorphins to “collect” and “inject good feelings.” I’m not sure what magic the body’s chemical factory conjures during the warmup. Subjectively, it feels like the body simply needs time to get its innards sorted out.

It seems important also to get everything working, not just the body but emotions and spirit as well. Running is never just about the body. It’s a whole process – the body contributes rhythm and energy, the heart throws in a dash of positive feeling, and the spirit wants to run with good cheer. The body leads the parade, and once energy begins to flow, upbeat feelings arise naturally.

That’s the ideal, though as Jeff noted, it doesn’t happen every day. But the long warmup helps.

You can read Galloway’s guidelines for warming up here. Bear in mind that many of his readers are beginners or recreational runners. Thus he rarely talks about pushing the pace – he’s more concerned with encouraging people to run in ways that keep the rewards greater than the pain.

He suggests a 20-minute warmup, which I imagine many newcomers would feel is quite long. He could hardly urge them to warm up for 40, 60, or 90 minutes, even if he were inclined to. Yet, in my experience, a very long warmup often makes wonderful things possible.

Exactly how long will vary from day to day, and probably by age and ability. I turned 67 at 9 a.m. today, and it generally takes my body an hour to get ready to run fast. On the other hand, I’ve had runs where I was able to push the pace comfortably after only 15 minutes. The guideline is the inner okay that the body gives me, speaking through the feelings of the heart. When you speed up, a feeling of comfort and harmony in the heart tells you that the body is warmed up and ready to roll.

I’m inspired by Jeff’s concluding words:

When the pace is right, your creative/intuitive “right brain” can bestow a sense of freedom that is unsurpassed…. A very simple sensation of inner peace settles in when you have not exceeded your speed limit. This often leads to an hour of right brain images, inspirations, creative ideas, solutions to problems, and access to seldom visited areas of our psyche that make the rest of the day…a very good experience.

When everything’s in sync, there’s a powerful feeling of “rightness” that tells you you’re doing exactly the best training for the day. Those “right” feelings are an infallible guide to training well. If you pick up the pace tentatively and those feelings persist at the faster speed, you can be sure that your body is ready to fire up the afterburners.

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