The Most Enjoyable Pace

Rich Englehart graciously let me post the transcript of his 2000 interview with three-time Olympic gold medalist Peter Snell of New Zealand (1500 in 1960; 800 in 1960, 1964). This is the second of two followup articles. (Click to read the first: “How to Increase Your Mileage Enjoyably.”)

Later, Rich shared these thoughts via email:

One of the things that comes up in that interview that I’ve pondered a lot is Peter’s insistence that you need to be around 7:00 pace to deplete the slow-twitch muscles of glycogen. He has that pace, or something like it, as an absolute. It seems to me that depletion would be more related to effort, say to heart rate, than to an absolute pace. I just can’t believe that [Haile] Gebrselassie [current world marathon record holder] is having the same physical experience at 7:00 a mile as I am, or even that I’m having the same experience with 7:00 miles now as I had in 1975. I can’t believe that someone whose best mile is maybe 6:40 is getting the same physiological effect at 7:00 pace as someone whose best mile is 4:40.

I specifically asked Peter about this, and he said he wasn’t sure but he thought running at 7:00 pace is where the depletion begins to happen. But 7:00 pace uphill and 7:00 pace downhill creates the same effect?

I ran this by Internet running physiology legend John Hadd who says he thinks Peter is wrong about the absolute pace business. John thinks depletion is related to effort and heart rate. I’m also thinking more and more that there is a lot of hair splitting going on.

Common sense tells me that Rich is right – that different people get the same training effect at different running speeds. But, before I elaborate, let me reprint some further remarks from Rich, a portion of which I quoted last week:

I’ve generally come to think that we’ve gone off the rails a bit with our fixation on physiology. It’s too mechanistic and implies that we’re building a machine when we train a runner, and the best-built machine will race fastest. That approach ignores the mind and spirit. It’s like trying to explain why a race car did well or poorly without factoring the driver. 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 Running to the Top is called “Enjoyment; the First Step.”

How could I not agree? – Rich is essentially paraphrasing part of the introduction to Fitness Intuition, although he’s never read the book. Which, I guess, goes to show that all roads lead to Rome.

Rich is vastly more talented than I. In the mid-1970s, as a college junior, he was hustling through his long runs at 6:30 pace, and was actually capable of running them at 5:30, while I was plodding at a sedate 8:30. Yet we seem to have arrived at similar conclusions about training. Probably not surprising, since the general patterns of training are the same for runners, and only the details and basic talent change.

Like Rich, in the intro to Fitness Intuition I expressed my misgivings about trying to approach training too “scientifically.” In fact, I believe the road through a purely scientific approach leads to madness.

Consider Peter Snell. When he was doing speedwork in preparation for the Olympics, he recalls: “If I was doing work for the 800 meters, I would actually lie down and take a rest until I felt like doing another one.”

Can’t you hear the exercise physiologists scream? “No! No! No, no, no – you must shorten the intervals, or your body will have too long to recover and it won’t adapt and get stronger.”

Yet Snell’s three golds speak louder than the physiologists’ precisely reasoned caveats.

Back to the original question: Is 7:00 pace a magic figure? Should we all try to do our long runs at 7-minute miles? And, if we don’t, or are unable to, will we fail to improve?

Here’s how I see it. For elite runners like Snell, 7:00 might be a good general pace for improving aerobic fitness. Snell’s mile record of 3:54.4 indicates that, for him, 7:00 was relaxed and easy. Frank Shorter did more than 80% of his weekly 140 miles at about 7:00 pace. And John L. Parker, Jr. recalls that the elite members of the Florida Track Club in the 1970s, who included Shorter, Jeff Galloway, Jack Bacheler, etc., did their aerobic running at 7:00 pace.

Yet nothing is more basic to training than individual differences. In fact, it’s a major part of what made Lydiard and University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman so successful – they were the first to recognize that each runner needs to train differently. Thus, Bowerman assigned very different schedules to Steve Prefontaine, who could recover quickly from hard training, and Kenny Moore, who needed more rest.

Bowerman kept a sharp lookout for the slightest signs of fatigue or overtraining in his runners. He watched for drooping heads, slurred speech, flagging enthusiasm, a too-high heart rate. If he thought that a runner needed rest, he would unhesitatingly send him to the showers.

Numbers-based, fixed standards are simply wrong. But universal principles are a different story.

And that’s where Lydiard nailed it. He didn’t preach 7:00 pace; he suggested that runners do long runs at “1/4 effort,” medium runs at “1/2 effort,” and short runs at “3/4 effort.” Not a very satisfying prescription, for those who demand precise numbers. But it’s extremely wise, for those who understand that training must be individualized.

What’s the best pacing guideline? It may sound simplistic, even stupid, but allow me to suggest an answer: the pace that feels most “right.”

John L. Parker, Jr., a Florida Track Club teammate of Shorter’s, gives a useful starting point for calculating individual pace to improve aerobic condition. In his book, Heart Monitor Training for the Compleat Idiot, He suggests doing most runs at 70% of max heart rate (MHR), calculated by the Karvonen formula: MHR minus resting heart rate, times 0.7, plus resting heart rate.

Parker has no science for the 70% figure. In fact, it’s based on his long experience as an elite runner and coach. It may seem too rigidly numbers-based – after all, different runners may have vastly different talent, yet have the same resting and maximum heart rates. But it works surprisingly well for plain-vanilla runners like me, at least as a starting point.

My “70% Karvonen” heart rate is about 78% of MHR, calculated as a straight percentage. And, in practice, I find that holding my heart rate just under 80% MHR feels exactly right.

Physically, it generates a nice flow of energy. Also, it feels as if I’m working optimally to improve my aerobic condition. If I drift above 80%, the feeling changes – it feels like a “very slow race,” and I’m unable to run as comfortably or as far.

So, while I’m certainly not going to say that “70% Karvonen is exactly the pace that will optimally improve every runner’s aerobic fitness, I do believe that there is such an ideal pace for every runner, and that the 70% figure is a good place to start pinpointing that pace.

I further believe that that optimal aerobic pace is confirmed by a strong, emphatic inner feeling of “rightness.” And that’s important, because the body tells us when it’s happy, by making us feel good.

While the 70% figure is a good starting point, it would be foolish, even dangerous, to cleave rigidly to that pace (or any number). On some runs, if I’m a bit tired, I find that the wonderful feeling of “rightness” comes at 5 beats per minute below 70%, or even lower.

Science has yet to give us a complete picture of training, and it always seems as if the exercise scientists are still a few centuries from covering the whole canvas. Meanwhile, runners and coaches are a lot closer to the ultimate truth, because they deal with whole systems, in the real world.

The big picture of training may already be surprisingly complete. And – not suprisingly – it deals with the whole runner, and not merely with how isolated organs respond to exercise.

Scientists know, conclusively, that our bodies, emotions, and minds talk to each other in an ongoing, continuous, intimate, rapid-fire conversation.

It would be very surprising, therefore, if there wasn’t an accurate inner feedback mechanism that can tell us how hard and how long to train.

When we mistreat the body, it doesn’t simply stand mute – it makes us feel bad. And when we treat the body well, it rewards us with good feelings. The system is very precise – it can tell us not only what’s “okay,” but what’s exactly optimal.

Paying attention to these feelings is the easiest way to “listen to the body” and get the most out of our running, in improvement and enjoyment.

Approaching the last miles of a long run, it’s very easy to know – if we pay careful attention – whether we’re doing too much. We may not notice any physical symptoms – there may not be pronounced fatigue or physical pain. But calm, inner feeling can unfailingly tell us if we’re beginning to go off the rails. It will be a very subtle sense that the body is saying “Uh-oh, we’ve gone 18 miles already, and I’m not feeling good about the miles ahead – are you SURE you want to run another four miles?”

Of course, that’s when the mind – or rather emotional feeling – plays its most dastardly, devious trick. If we’re emotionally attached to finishing that 22-miler, the mind will seldom protest – instead, it will trot along and obediently supply a rich variety of “good” reasons why it’s right, honest, and honorable to keep running.

That’s why it’s imperative to evaluate our state with calm, detached feeling – not emotion that’s colored by personal desires.

As a runner, I’m painfully aware how often I’m tempted to override the heart’s humble voice of wisdom. The rationalizations only too personally familiar: “This is where the tough get going.” “But I’m having such a good time.” “If I press on, I’ll get stronger.” “I’m no weakling, no whiner.” “I’ll dig deep, then run a bit shorter and slower tomorrow.”

I’m intimately familiar with my mind’s bag of tricks. And yet I can still screw up, carried away by my desires.

In my first run after a recent bout of bronchitis, I happily ran 2 hours, even though I was vaguely aware that my body was suggesting, 90 minutes into the run, that it would be a good thing to jog or walk back to the car. But it was such a beautiful day, and it felt so good to be back out in the sun, running in the green Stanford Hills, and enjoying the lovely Lydiard-style 70% pace.

On the drive home, I was even whistling and singing in the car. Yet I paid a steep price for a few miles of questionable running, in the form of a far more severe recurrence of the bronchitis. I simply did not leave enough energy in the tank, as Lydiard wisely recommends. I cut deeply into the margin that my body needed to stay health and improve.

Nature is a ruthless task master. What every runner must learn is that nothing is ever lost by doing “too little.” Running an extra four miles, when we’re feeling tired, is unwise – because we risk illness, and we deplete the body’s pool of “adaptation energy,” so we extend the time it takes to recover.

Study after study has found that those people are most successful in life who’ve learned the benefits and intrinsic pleasures of deferred enjoyment. Preschool children who were able to defer receiving a small financial reward in order to receive are larger one later, grew up to be overwhelmingly more successful in later life. This is every bit as true for runners.

How many of us can be sufficiently disciplined to leave a little extra in the tank and finish allour runs feeling “pleasantly tired,” as Lydiard recommended. Speaking for myself, I find it a constant challenge not to burn up all the fuel in the tank.

Yet, despite mistakes, I’m on a wonderful new path in my training. After years of tinkering, I know the proper pace for most runs. I know that it hovers around 70% per Karvonen, as John L. Parker, Jr. suggests in his book.

That pace feels wonderful. Yet Mother Nature’s overarching rules still apply: “Listen to your body. Leave a little in the tank. Enjoy yourself, but don’t try to grab more enjoyment than is there. Adjust your pace to your body’s ability on the day.”

There is no single “best” pace, no magic number. Roughly 10 years ago, I ran a memorable 18-miler. I planned to keep my heart rate at 70%, but halfway through I simply ran out of gas. Trying to hold the planned 70% was a struggle. It was deeply unpleasant. Yet when I slowed to 65%, I felt wonderful – so much that on the last hill I was whistling and singing aloud.

On that day, 7:00 would have been impossible, 70% Karvonen a disaster. Yet there was a best, right, optimal place for the day. It was a fine-tuned, custom-tailored pace, assigned for me by Mother Nature. It was the pace of maximum joy.

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One Response to The Most Enjoyable Pace

  1. Robert Wildes June 1, 2009 at 8:43 am #

    Very thought provoking George.

    Rich has been an internet coach for me, the only one I’ve
    ever had, and Lydiard has been arguably the single best
    coach in running history.

    Hope to see you most frequently on the Lydiard board.

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