Should We “Train Up” or “Train Down”?

Ray Piva haunts my dreams. He plagues my training. He leads me into murky waters of fatigue and bad results.

On a Saturday morning in the late 1990s, I drove to San Francisco and ran across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Marin Headlands.

It’s a favorite route with wonderful views of Bay, ocean, City, and bridge. The course is wildly varied — crossing the bridge, you weave through an ever-entertainingly diverse crowd — colorful saris, camera-bedecked Japanese, honeymooners from everywhere, occasional gangbangers up from LA or San Jose.

At the bridge’s north end, you can duck down steep stairs to a crosswalk that emerges in a parking lot on the west side of the highway. The Coastal Trail start here – it’s a doorway to several thousand miles of trails that extend 50 miles north in the Coastal Range.

Crossing the parking lot, I saw a group of ultramarathoner getting ready for a training run. Among them was Earl “Rocket” Jones, one of ultrarunning’s few Black stars, and the indefatigable Ray Piva. Now in his eighties, Ray was in his early seventies at the time.

I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to invite myself to join those guys.” To give you an idea of Ray’s talent, his age 75-79 WR for 50 miles is an amazing 8:34. That’s 10:30 pace for 50 miles, at over 75. Ray has set over 20 American and world age-group records, from 50K to 100 miles.

I said hi to Rocket, accused him of flirting with my girlfriend at the Michigan Bluff aid station during Western States, and jogged on.

Ten minutes later, I looked down from high up on the hill and saw the runners still yakking in the parking lot below. I thought wrily, “They’ll be along real soon now.”

Sure enough, 10 minutes later, they came roaring by, Ray Piva in the lead with Rocket & Co. breathing hard and struggling in his wake. It was impressive. I thanked my guiding angels that I’d had the good sense to go on alone.

The problem I have with Ray Piva is that whenever I’m wondering how much training my 68-year-old body can stand, images of Ray pop up.

“He’s a stud,” I think. “He dominates runners 30-40 years younger than he is, even though he’s in his seventies. I’m only 68, and yet I have trouble recovering from my wimpy 2½-hour long runs. What is wrong with me?”

Somewhere in the tiny part of my brain where good sense lives, I know the best way to improve is by “pushing up from below.”

Arthur Lydiard never had his elite runners do “tempo runs” — runs of 20 minutes or longer at 85% to 92% of max heart rate. Lydiard believed that running faster than aerobic pace, especially during the aerobic base-building phase, destroys the body’s aerobic adaptations that are a key high-quality racing.

Lydiard believed the best way to raise the anaerobic threshold — the speed at which we can run without breathing hard — is by running up to 10 miles at a pace just under the anaerobic threshold (for most runners, at or around 85% of max heart rate).

Whether Lydiard was correct, I can’t say with authority. My personal aerobic pace has gotten quicker since I began doing sub-tempo runs. But I’m not sure if it’s because of those runs, or the strength work I’m doing, or both. Lydiard accumulated real-world evidence in support of his methods. His results prove their validity — no other coach has been more successful. Chris Solinsky, who recently set a new US 10,000m record (26:59.60), trains Lydiard-style, with a huge base of aerobic and sub-tempo running.

Lydiard’s elites did three key runs per week during the aerobic phase: a 22-miler run at “medium” aerobic pace (for most runners, that probably translates as a hair under 80% of MHR), and two 10-milers at “high” aerobic pace (just under 85%).

Whenever I start a new training method, I think of Ray Piva, and he inspires me to work too hard. Like most runners, I love to work “from the top down.”

It isn’t really Ray’s fault. I blame the area of my brain that pipes up, “Hey, I’ll run with ego as my guide. I’ll train as I imagine Ray would. And won’t I look good! But if it all goes to hell, I can always back off.”

Like so many logical ideas, it’s perfectly reasonable but damnably wrong.

I recently introduced not one, but three new methods into my weekly routine. The details don’t matter; suffice it that I tried training top-down and was soon humbled.

The worst part is that I wasted time. I spent a month backing off more and more until I arrived at the level of training my body could actually endure. If I had listened to the tiny whispers from the portion of my brain where good sense resides, I’d be a lot further along.

While I can’t say conclusively whether sub-temp or tempo running is best, I can tell you that top-down running sucks.

It’s lovely when we can identify higher principles in our training. And I think that’s what we’re dealing with here. The body loves to push up from below. It’s nature’s wisdom. It’s a principle that we can rely on.

The surest way to guarantee that you’ll have a great run is by starting with a long, gradual warmup, and doing only what the body can manage while running in a careful balance of effort and harmony.

Bruce Fordyce, who won the Comrades Marathon, South Africa’s legendary 53.8-mile ultra, eight years in a row, believed in being cautious “to the point of paranoia”:

My training advice is going to be different…because I place my emphasis on rest and recovery. I do believe in hard training, but there is only so much hard training that the body can take, and the timing and duration of any hard training phase is very important. During the hard training phase, never be afraid to take a day off. If your legs are feeling unduly stiff and sore, rest; if you are at all sluggish, rest; in fact, if you doubt, rest. (Noakes, Lore of Running, 4th ed., p. 453)

I’ve spoken of the area of the brain that empowers us to do foolish things. But there’s another part of our brains that grows larger as we age. It’s the old, mature brain center that holds priceless attitudes of caution, wisdom, and good judgment. It’s a part of the brain that we might do well to visit more often, particularly when we’re deciding how to run. When it comes to training, at least, it’s a good idea to grow up and train our age.

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2 Responses to Should We “Train Up” or “Train Down”?

  1. Robert Wildes June 11, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    We all get tempted to try questionable methods from time to time.

    It has been a general observation of mine, that when a group of runners train together, the best runners in the group receive the best training while the lesser runners wear themselves out trying to keep pace.

    There is an excellent 3+ hour audio tape with Lydiard, Snell and Magee on the Bud Winter site, by the way.

  2. runbei June 15, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    Thanks to Robert for the pointer to the the three-hour tape with Lydiard, Snell, and Magee on the Bud Winter website. Those interested can find it here. The MP3 download costs $14.99 (the talk will be available soon in a three-CD boxed set). Includes a two-hour talk by Lydiard on training, with anecdotes, tips, funny stories, etc. I haven’t listened to it yet, but plan to. – George

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