How Not to Get Fast

After 65 years of living and nearly 40 of running, I thought I’d experienced all the ways a runner could get into trouble.

On a lovely spring morning in May, I ran 2 hours in the foothills of the San Francisco Peninsula. I felt wonderful. I was taking a new dietary supplement, and I was as frisky as as hound dog. My body just kept finding fresh energy. And with typical runner-logic, I thought, “Kid, you’ve really got it today — might as well find out how far you can push it.”

Normally on long runs, I like to keep my pace under 77-79% of maximum heart rate. Why? In an email exchange with Dave Cameron, a participant on the Cool Running forums, I outlined my reasons:

In the chapter “The Persistence of Long, Slow Distance,” in my book, I talk about a phenomenon where heart-rate variability abruptly changes at about 65% of MHR. To me, that indicates a natural threshold. And it’s confirmed by my experience: When I do my warmups at 65-67% MHR, it feels “exactly right.”

Then there’s another threshold that we’ve been discussing, at around 78-79%. When I run at that pace, after a thorough warmup, I have an uncanny feeling that it’s doing my body good — I’m getting stronger without tearing down. But if I go even a little bit faster, above 80% of MHR, the feeling goes away. At that pace, it longer feels like I’m giving my body a balance of exercise that it can handle in the long run, and get stronger. Instead, it feels like I’m running a “slow race.”

This isn’t always the case, however. In the book, I tell about a day where I was able to run at 92-96% of MHR aerobically for about 4 miles. It was a really cool experience that was born of good training, mental focus, inner harmony, etc. Everything came together. (Chapter title: “The 96% Run.”) After that run, I recovered quickly — no illness or lasting fatigue, etc. So it is possible to “break the rules” on occasion, though, of course, that run was more like a race.

Our discussion leads me to think that there are truths that apply for the general average of training — for example, the 65% and 78-79% thresholds are valid guidelines for pacing during the warmup and on long runs. But there are also these exceptional experiences that can happen when all of the elements fall into place — body, heart, will, mind, soul, working in harmony.

And the only way I know to tell how I should train on a given day is by paying careful attention to the calm, detached feelings of the heart. I know it sounds terribly new-agey, and for years I didn’t really trust it. But it works.

After that too-hard run in May, I paid a steep price: six weeks of viral bronchitis that veered into pneumonia. It had taken me 30 years to learn to listen to my body’s subtle signals, and train accordingly. And the penalty for ignoring the lessons was severe.

(I don’t feel it would be wise to name the supplement I was taking, by the way. Like so many other over-hyped “energizers”, it appeared to stimulate certain brain receptors to the point that where the number of receptors decreased, and it took an increasingly large dose to achieve the same results. After a few weeks, when I realized what was happening, I stopped taking the supplement.)

As I explained in the email exchange with Dave, I normally do my long runs conservatively. I’ll take a long warmup (45-65 minutes isn’t unusual) at a gentle 65-70% of MHR. After perhaps 40 minutes, I’ll increase the pace to 70-75% of MHR, and a little past an hour, I may pick it up to 77-79% of MHR and hold it there. Why that specific pace? Because it feels exactly right. But I won’t increase the pace unless it feels right. On days when my body is tired or ill, running faster evokes feelings of “Uh-oh, this is wrong.”

Inner feeling is not “new-agey.” It’s an extremely useful training tool. I’m apparently not the only one who thinks so. In an interview on Nike’s website, American 5000-meter record holder Bob Kennedy shared his thoughts on good training: “You have to really pay attention to your body, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally.” [Italics mine.]

Where did I go wrong during that long run? I allowed personal, emotional feelings to override the calm, dispassionate feelings of the “reasonable heart.” Intuitive feeling is very different from raw emotion. It’s calm, non-reactive, able to discern and follow what’s right, without personal prejudice.

Nobuya “Nobby” Hashizume spent a year in New Zealand studying with coaching legend Arthur Lydiard. Nobby, who now coaches runners at the University of Minnesota, is the co-founder, with 1984 Boston Marathon winner and 1992 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Lorraine Moller, of the Lydiard Foundation.

In a discussion of Lydiard’s methods on the Cool Running community forums, Nobby wrote:

Lydiard said something like “You should not be alarmed by temporary exhaustion; but you should watch out for permanent fatigue…” Something like that. In order to identify the differences, you need to rely, more than anything else, on your own feeling. When we got together with Frank Shorter in regards to his support for the Lydiard Foundation, two things he emphasized most with Lydiard principles were: high-mileage training and feeling-based training.

There are a zillion questions about running — some quite basic — for which science hasn’t yet given us answers. One is: What training heart rate is best for the long run?

Consulting books by well-known coaches, famous runners, and noted sports physiologists, we find that they’re rarely agreed on even such basic issues as the best way to develop endurance and speed.

Peter Snell, a Lydiard protégé who won four Olympic gold medals at 1500m and 800m, believes long runs should be done at “medium” pace. For the world-class Lydiard runners that Snell trained with, that translated to a weekly 22-mile run at 7:00 pace at the start of the 10-week aerobic endurance training phase, and 6:00 pace toward the end of the base-building period.

Other experts give different answers. Philip Maffetone, coach of six-time Hawaiian Ironman winner Mark Allen, urges runners to go no faster during the aerobic build-up stage than their “180-minus” pace. Not to delve into the details, but by any standard, that’s slower than “medium” pace. (For me, it works out to only 70% of MHR.)

Ask Jeff Galloway, Joe Henderson, or (former Frank Shorter teammate) John L. Parker, Jr. about the best long-run pace, and you’ll get a variety of responses. Ask former marathon world record holder Ingrid Kristiansen, and you’ll get yet another variation:

It takes a long time to build up your fat metabolism capacity; normally several years of training. The type of training we think is most effective are long easy runs. It is important that this training is easy and not too hard (because then the carbohydrate dominance will take over). At the same time this type of training should not be too easy either.

How hard should I have run during my fatal long outing? I wouldn’t have needed to consult a book. The answer was as close as my heart. During the second hour of the run, I had a distinctly harmonious feeling when I held my heart rate at about 79% of MHR. But when I picked up the pace and my heart rate rose above 80%, those harmonious feelings disappeared. During those stretches, I pushed hard, looking for a higher level of joy, and found none at all.

What do I mean by “harmonious” feelings? I mean that the 78-79% pace felt exactly right. Thirty-two years of running have taught me to respect those feelings, because when I do, my training delivers excellent results inwardly and outwardly. Those feelings are my body’s way of saying “You’re doing the right thing, kiddo.”

During that long run, my heart and head were arguing. I thought, “‘Aerobic pace’ ends at 85% of MHR — so why should there be a problem if I run just a notch faster, a little above 80%? If I can run this fast, why shouldn’t I?” But my heart disagreed. And my heart was right.

Runners are prone to assume that when they’re feeling great, capable of running harder than the day’s schedule calls for, they should. It’s based on unimpeachable logic: I’ve got lots of energy today — so why not use it to train hard and get stronger? Why chicken out and go home without giving my all? The trouble is, logic deals with abstractions, but the heart’s intuitive feelings deal with the real world, and the thousand unknown variables that lie beyond logic’s grasp.

Perhaps it will be right for you to run hard on a particular day — but you can know for sure that it isn’t, if it overrides the incorruptible feelings of the heart. You can fool the emotions. You can easily fool the mind. But you can’t fool the intuitive heart. Those calm feelings of right and wrong are unbribable — you can’t jolly them into letting you do something that will prove harmful farther down the road.

When I think of the heart, I visualize one of those beautiful Swiss villages set in an impossibly green valley, surrounded by mountains that ascend to snow-covered peaks. The heart is like a picturesque Swiss village, placed halfway between the mountain heights and the flat, dry plains below. All kinds of feelings pass through the heart, from the most mundane and self-serving, to the most exalted and spiritual. I also think of the heart as a Grand Central Station where both body and soul talk to us.

In his book, Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda describes his first experience of samadhi, a state of ecstasy where the meditator realizes his oneness with Spirit. Yogananda wrote:

My body became immovably rooted; breath was drawn out of my lungs as if by some huge magnet. Soul and mind instantly lost their physical bondage, and streamed out like a fluid piercing light from my every pore. The flesh was as though dead, yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before had I been fully alive. My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confined to a body, but embraced the circumambient atoms. People on distant streets seemed to be moving gently over my own remote periphery. The roots of plants and trees appeared through a dim transparency of the soil; I discerned the inward flow of their sap….

An oceanic joy broke upon calm endless shores of my soul. The Spirit of God, I realized, is exhaustless Bliss; His body is countless tissues of light. A swelling glory within me began to envelop towns, continents, the earth, solar and stellar systems, tenuous nebulae, and floating universes. The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being. The sharply etched global outlines faded somewhat at the farthest edges; there I could see a mellow radiance, ever-undiminished. It was indescribably subtle; the planetary pictures were formed of a grosser light…. I cognized the center of the empyrean as a point of intuitive perception in my heart.

My old-guy’s body needs more time to recover than it once did. But I still enjoy training hard. I do a lot of praying in connection with my running. I’ve realized that the heart is not only where the body communicates its needs to us. It’s also where we can receive wise guidance in answer to our prayers. I’ve discovered that God doesn’t mind if we ask for help with such mundane, practical matters as what training is best. He likes that!

I’ve settled on a program that seems to be just right: one tough run per week and two days of short, easy runs. On the easy runs, I rarely go faster than 70% of MHR. On the once-a-week hard run, I’ll go 1½ to 3½ hours at 77-79% MHR. At the end, I’ll walk for a mile or so, then do some short intervals. When I’m fully recovered from my recent illness, I may do dedicated speedwork every other week, instead of a long run.

Training smart takes patience — a quality that I sometimes lack. During my illness, I become badly deconditioned. Those first recovery runs were pretty sorry — I felt like the Pillsbury Doughboy. After several weeks, I became restless and decided to throw some hard intervals into the weekday easy runs. I’d read some research on how intervals rapidly increase VO2Max. I thought, “ Aha! A good way to speed my recovery.”

The intervals felt terrible. What the hell, I thought. Of course they feel bad. Your body’s just sluggish. You need to ran hard and blow out the carbs. Clear the cobwebs. Wait and see: the last intervals will feel better.

Well, of course — they didn’t. After the run, my sinuses began to drip ominously, and there was a scratchy feeling in the back of my throat. I surely didn’t want to get sick again. And so I hastily backed off, re-examined my training, and determined to follow my higher guidance with discipline.

Kids, don’t expect to get smarter, with advancing years. How did I go so wrong? The heart’s wisdom was there, but I didn’t listen. The heart isn’t enough. The problem is, its guidance is reliable, but we are not. Many thwarting cross-currents can prevent us from hearing its signals. In my case, my restless impatience made it hard to listen. The still, small voice that tried to tell me my body didn’t want to run hard was drowned-out by personal emotion. It was like listening for a doorbell in a hurricane.

A pair of really useful skills to develop for runners are (1) being able to know when we’re emotional, and (2) learning to calm and harmonize the heart. Meditation teachers often give techniques for “stilling the mind,” “centering,” etc. But it’s far more effective to work with the heart. When we’re in love, the mind automatically becomes riveted on the beloved. In my book, I describe studies by the Heartmath Institute on the powerful mind-harmonizing and focusing effects of positive feelings.

A good technique for harmonizing the heart is: just run. Take a long warmup, and be disciplined. Determine to postpone making any decisions about how you’ll spend the bulk of the run, until you’re feeling calm and honestly capable of moving in any direction, without personal prejudice: run fast, run long, run slow, run short — or call it a day. Remember that doing what’s right always feels best in the end.

A long warmup won’t kill you — 40 minutes to an hour of easy jogging isn’t “just wasted time.” Especially if it prevents you from trashing your training for a day, a week, or a month. Try to pick a route for the long warmup where you usually enjoy running. Pull your attention to the immediate circle of the present. Where am I right now? Can I enjoy this moment…and this…and this? How beautiful (interesting, unusual, unique) is my environment at this point? There are lots of techniques for harmonizing that heart that you can practice on the run: chanting, repeating a short affirmation or prayer, listening to soothing music (or singing silently), running with an internal sense of dancing rhythm, etc.

It’s ultimately the heart’s feelings that lead us astray — not the mind’s thinking. Thoughts tend to follow whatever feelings are uppermost in the heart. And yet, the mind is essential, too. When we’re riding on rough seas of emotion, reason, logic and will power are required.

In Fitness Intuition, I describe a study that showed it’s impossible to feel emotionally upset when our attention and energy are centered in the prefrontal cortex of the brain — the area roughly above and between the eyebrows. It’s the area of the brain where “advanced” qualities are localized, such as mental focus, the ability to make sound judgments, and the capacity to form and pursue constructive goals. Athletes instinctively know that the best way to calm pre-race jitters and avoid being psyched or distracted during a race is by focusing attention deeply and deliberately.

When you’re running, feeling great, and tempted to do something foolish — stop. Quite literally — stop and walk. Don’t let yourself start running again until you’ve brought yourself back to your senses. Be a good nanny. Realize that your brain has regressed temporarily to pre-adolescence. Those brain centers of adult attitudes in the prefrontal cortex don’t being to develop fully until we’re about 18 years old. Until then, our behavior largely ruled by emotion. That’s why, when we’re young, we need adults around.

Let me confess — in this article, I’m preaching to myself. If, during that unfortunate long run back in May, I had remembered to cultivate a harmonious heart, and if I had turned on the internal BS-meter of reason, I’d be running a lot better today.