Civilized Training

Dolly Parton said, “Figure out who you are and do it on purpose.”

It’s great advice for runners.

Find out who you are. Find out what you can do, and do it on purpose.

When your body fails to meet the day’s schedule, why fret? You’ve figured out who you are today. Now you can “do it on purpose.” Change your training, adjust it, tweak it, fine-tune it. Make your training your own; make it meet you where you are. Don’t try to squeeze who you really are into what you “should” be – what the schedule says.

In running, there are no failures, only learning experiences. Which is a way of saying that so-called failures are just opportunities.

When we figure out who we are, and do  it on purpose, we can take the first step toward success.

Who are you? When you’re running, look in the mirror. Watch yourself. Better yet, watch your body.

Consider the Krebs Cycle (aka Citric Acid Cycle), the staggeringly complex process by which the body makes energy from carbs and oxygen.

Krebs Cycle diagram (also called Citric Acid Cycle)

When you set out on a run, your body isn’t the least bit interested in your schedule. It’s far too busy overseeing the amazing chemical factory within. And if the factory is a bit sluggish — perhaps you’ve gotten too little sleep, taken the wrong fuels, overtrained, etc. — nothing will make it work faster. Overriding the body with brute force will just break the factory.

Imagine you’re doing Lydiard-style aerobic base training. The weekly schedule is important, as a reminder of the three kinds of runs that will help you improve. Each run has a purpose:

  1. The long run at “medium” pace (75% to 80% MHR) improves aerobic metabolism. Also, doing long runs on hills builds strength for the training phases down the line — the strength and speed-training stages.
  2. One or two weekly runs at a high aerobic pace (just under 85% MHR) raise the aerobic threshold and gradually enable you to run faster aerobically (without breathing hard). For elites, these runs can be up to 10 miles; for ordinary mortals, a single shorter “sub-threshold” run may be enough. (Figure out who you are.)
  3. The remainder of the week’s runs are very, very easy. They’re purely for recovery. These runs flush out waste products and bring fresh nutrients to the recovering muscles.

Each run plays a role, and each is important. So it’s not surprising if we feel a bit upset when we fail to meet the target distance and pace for the day. Dark thoughts arise: “This is terrible! I’m not scheduled for another sub-threshold run for days, so I’ve lost valuable training time, and what if it happens again next week? What’s wrong with my body? Why won’t it do what I want it to?!”

If the body could speak, it might say: “Welcome to yourself — this is who you are today. I’ll tell you what’s real, if you’ll listen.”

The upside of “bad” runs, which runners are inclined to overlook, is that there’s always a right pace and distance for the day. If we can identify that right pace and distance, and not be tempted to override the body’s signals and do more, we’ll be doing the best possible training on the day. We’ll be in harmony with reality and we’ll do what can improve fitness.

No matter how crappy we feel, we can always make progress, if we simply do the right thing.

It’s an upbeat way of thinking about the “off days” that all runners experience. It isn’t that the schedule is wrong, or that our body has let us down. Truth be told, the schedule is nothing more or less than an abstraction, but running is real.

We need to be wary of trying to make the schedule our coach. The schedule can give us the right direction for our training. We can safely think of the schedule as a set of principles, but let the body decide how to apply those principles on the day.

The body is continually trying to tell us the best way to train. It’s always broadcasting valuable information.

What prevents us from hearing the body’s subtle messages? More than anything, emotionally charged personal desires.

Emotion is personal —it’s about what we like and dislike, what we want and don’t want. Calm feeling is mature and impersonal — and a far more accurate training guide. It’s a kind of feeling that is quiet and focused and true. It’s a sincere, adult, unselfish feeling. It’s the kind of feeling that, when we meet someone for the first time, enables us to restrain our emotions and make space for the other person’s realities.

The body knows what it can safely do. No coach standing by the road, stopwatch in hand, can tell us the best way to train — but the brilliant body can.

The body has a system of sensors that are finely tuned to its state, and that send messages about its state to the heart and brain, so that we can know precisely how far and how hard to run. It will tell us, through calm intuitive feeling, the kind of training that is expansive — that will improve fitness and give us joy. And it will let us know, with subtle feelings of disharmony, or “wrongness,” when we’re doing too much.

It’s a wonderful system, and it wants to cooperate with our training plans. But it will never lie to us. It will always tell us how we can carry out our schedule in the best possible way, by making fine adjustments on the day.

If we ignore the body’s wisdom, or try to jolly it into doing what we want, we’ll only succeed in doing more damage than good. Like driving a poorly tuned race car through a fast time trial, the damage can take a long time to repair.

What should you do when your schedule tells you one thing, and your body appears to be trying to tell you something different?

Realize that even the best schedule is only a theory. It’s an optimistic projection of what you might be able to accomplish this week. It’s what you might be able to do on your very best days, when your body is optimally tuned. But NO schedule can ever serve as a completely accurate prediction of your training. The schedule is a direction, not a fixed goal.

Runners endure needless worry when they fail to meet their schedules. “I’ll run for an hour and a half — a warmup, 30 minutes at medium pace, and 30 minutes at sub-threshold pace.”

We set out full of hope, our minds dancing with images of the enjoyable fast running to come. We’re eager to put in good work and improve our fitness.

And then the roof caves in. The warmup feels sluggish, and we never find a rhythm. We feel as if we’re running with the brakes on. When we begin the sub-tempo run, the body yelps: “NO! This is WRONG!” And so, with regret, we back off and jog home.

(Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience.)

Elite runners, as a group, are hugely positive. They’re also extremely pragmatic. They are realists — they have the maturity to accept reality as they find it, and not wish it were different. They’ve learned, through thousands of miles, to protect the longer rhythms of their training. And so, when they feel sub-par, they run easy or take the day off, knowing they’ll be able to train normally much sooner than if they force the pace today.

Schedules are wonderful, as a rough guide. They embody the wisdom of principles; but following them too literally can be dangerous.

Make each run — good, bad, merely okay — a learning experience. And when the schedule and the body go separate ways, take it as an opportunity to write a new improved schedule. Find out who you are, and do it on purpose.

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