How to Increase Your Mileage Enjoyably

Seems logical: the best way to increase mileage is to run everything slowly.

The added miles will be easy, and they’ll take a small toll on the body. So you can run again soon and really rack up the miles.

Strange to say, while it sounds logical, it’s wrong.

At least, that’s my experience. I spent years training slowly for ultramarathons. Ten-minute miles were typical, 9 minutes was fast. My goal was to finish.

I occasionally wondered if upping my mileage would improve my race times. Yet the thought of piling up more miles of slogging was appalling.

Here’s a funny thing. From the first day I began training faster, my enthusiasm soared, and I found it easy, even exciting, to pack on the miles.

What a paradox! Yet I believe there’s a simple explanation. Not to get too complicated about it, the right kind of energy generates abundant enthusiasm.

And, conversely, the wrong kind of energy, or too little energy, puts my enthusiasm in a nosedive.

As every runner knows, the wrong energy at the wrong time is counterproductive. Extending a long run too far – even a mile or two – or doing a single 400-meter repeat too many – can significantly delay recovery and decelerate progress.

What kind of energy generates enthusiasm and progress? The fairy tale of the Three Bears holds the answer: “not too hot, not too cold, just right.”

Energy comes in three flavors. Ancient cultures associated energy with fire. And the three flavors of energy were symbolized by three kinds of fire.

Low energy is a smoldering, sputtering flame – it produces unhealthy smoke, yields little warmth, and creates a dark, depressing mood.

Low energy is what we experience when we’re sick, under-rested, poorly fed, or overtrained. With low energy, we can’t even think about running. We sleep late, stagger out of bed, our engine sputtering, our mood sullen, defensive, resentful, reactive, contractive, and irritable. Low energy and enthusiasm are not good friends.

Let’s look at another kind of energy: rampant, out-of-control, forest-fire energy. Most runners won’t have trouble recognizing that kind of energy, because it’s the kind that most often creates problems.

Let’s give it an appropriate name. We’ll call it “ego-active energy.” It’s very active, which is why runners love it. “Sure – I can run 12 x 400m in X seconds with a 2-minute recovery!” That’s “active” energy talking. And, too often, it’s ego-active. From a desire to look good, feel proud, etc., we take things too far.

But, hey, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ego-active energy is actually a very good thing, up to a point. The problem arises when we allow the raging, active, exciting power of fiery energy tempt us to run our bodies into a ditch.

Little wonder that another word for overtraining is “burnout.” When we do too much, we use fiery will power to, literally, burn up the body’s resources – including the adaptation energy that the body needs in order to recover and grow stronger.

Okay, enough about fiery, out-of-control energy. There’s a third kind of energy that generates enthusiasm, improves fitness, and leaves us feeling wonderful.

In the ancient traditions, the third level of energy was symbolized by fire that’s controlled and useful. It warms but doesn’t burn. Think of a campfire on a cool fall evening. A fire in a barbecue preparing a delicious meal. A fire in the hearth on a snowy winter day.

Do those images bring to mind a feeling of a certain kind of running? A controlled, level-headed, moderate, effective, hard-working but intelligent and wise kind of running? A kind of running that leaves us feeling “pleasantly tired”? A kind of training that we naturally associate with highly successful, level-headed runners? Bob Kennedy? Frank Shorter?

That’s, obviously, the kind of energy that we should be looking for, if we want to enjoy our training and be successful.

Arthur Lydiard, perhaps the most successful distance running coach who ever lived, encapsulated that energy in two simple words. Lydiard urged us to finish each run feeling “pleasantly tired.” And that says it all.

Lydiard’s ideas have produced a continuous stream of Olympic medals and world records since he first began expounding them in the early 1960s. And the essence of what he preached was moderation.

Lydiard believed that progress in running requires hard work, balanced by constant respect for the body’s ever-changing needs.

I recently posted an interview with Lydiard’s most famous “disciple,” Peter Snell, winner of Olympic gold in the 800 meters at the 1960 and 1964 Games and the 1500 in 1964. Rich Englehart, who conducted the interview in 2001, is a long-time running journalist who has spent decades training generally according to Lydiard’s counsel, including many years of running 100-mile weeks. What Rich says about Lydiard is based on an insider’s knowledge of the sport.

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I’m a huge Lydiard fan and would agree with all the tributes he’s been given for his contributions to our knowledge of training. But I think his biggest contribution by far was creating an approach that is basically enjoyable, certainly more so than the approaches I started with. I think he understood that, too. The first chapter in his book Running to the Top is called “Enjoyment: the First Step.”

As an insight into Lydiard’s thinking, this is brilliant. What follows will be a bit of a ramble through Lydiard’s ideas. Bear with me: in the end, I think we’ll find that there are good, sound, practical reasons to place a high priority on running enjoyably.

Lydiard spent years tinkering with his running, toward the goal of identifying the best training for distance runners. Working in the “laboratory” of his own body, he ran up to 300 miles per week, testing a vast number of combinations of speed and distance. And what he arrived at in the end was surprisingly simple.

In essence, Lydiard said that a runner should do three long runs per week – two medium-long runs during the week and a 22-miler on the weekend (after gradually working up to that distance). Young, elite runners should add two or three speedwork sessions (the details aren’t important here), and fill in with slow jogging for 100 miles per week.

For competitors who want to achieve peak fitness for a specific goal race, Lydiard recommended a system of periodization that included phases of base aerobic conditioning, hill training for strength and flexibility, long speedwork for anaerobic conditioning, and short speedwork for leg speed.

The details are interesting, but the core of the program was the three long runs. And Lydiard believed that they should be done at “medium” or “moderate” speed. He by no means recommended that they be done very slowly, at jogging pace.

Peter Snell, who’s now a professor of cardiology, engaged in research in exercise physiology at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center, says the reason for doing long runs at medium pace is that it exhausts the glycogen supplies in the type 2a fast-twitch muscle fibers, so that the trainable type 2x fast-twitch fibers must take over part of the load. And because these type 2x fibers are trainable (type 2a fibers are not), they adapt, and we get faster.

Snell says that slow jogging doesn’t affect these type 2x fibers in the same way, even during very long runs, which is why people who jog through very long runs can finish a marathon, but don’t get faster.

These are some persuasive physiological explanations for why Lydiard’s training, based on the three long runs, improves endurance and speed. But an equally important reason is that it is enjoyable. Because, without enjoyment, few runners will be motivated to increase their mileage, much less run 100-mile weeks for several years.

In fact, two things make Lydiard-style, “medium”-paced running enjoyable.

The first is the same reason that exercise itself is inherently enjoyable: because it generates energy. And, up to a point, the more energy we channel through our physical, mental, and emotional “systems,” the more enjoyment we derive. Of course, if we try to turn up the motor too high, or for too long, enjoyment declines.

I think what we’re looking for is the precise balance-point where exercise intensity is like the fire in the hearth – not too hot, not too cold, just right.

How can we set the throttle during our runs at the point of “just enough” energy, where enjoyment and fitness expand optimally?

Well, it turns out to be surprisingly simple, because the body itself is quite willing to tell us the answer. When we run at exactly the right pace (given all possible variations of weather, diet, sleep, fitness, etc.), we feel wonderful. That’s the body’s way of saying: “Exactly right!”

Energy generates enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is an amazingly accurate monitor for identifying the right pace that the body can safely, happily, and optimally run a given distance on a given day.

The second thing that makes Lydiard’s training very enjoyable is that when we’re doing it correctly, we’re never, ever overtraining. In fact, we will never turn up the flame too high during any single run – promising perhaps, with typical runner’s rationalization, to “balance things out” with an extra-easy run the next day.

Lydiard knew that training is never optimal unless it’s basically enjoyable. That’s another reason why he urged us to finish every run feeling “pleasantly tired.” And he meant it. It was a serious cornerstone of his system. He believed that it was extremely important to leave some energy in the tank at the end of every run, because the body needs that “adaptation energy” to recover and get stronger.

The original question was: “What’s the best way to increase your training?” The answer is really quite simple: by training as enjoyably as possible. And Arthur Lydiard gave the formula for enjoyment: Run at medium pace, and always run a bit less than you could have.

One question, of course, still remains: how can we pinpoint that most-enjoyable “medium” pace? I’ve written a companion article that addresses that question, and I’ll post it separately. This article is already long enough, without tacking it on here.

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