Doing the Numbers

Years ago, I led a weekend running workshop at the Expanding Light, a beautiful guest retreat in the foothills of the Sierra, near Nevada City, California.

One of the runners was a feisty woman from Reno who told us she spent much of her spare time riding her Harley. Someone asked her, “What do you look like when you’re cruising on your bike?” “I look like cheap biker trash!” she exclaimed.

This woman approached running with the same bold and independent spirit she brought to everything. Her goal was to run a fast 5K, but she simply couldn’t hold herself back during training runs – everything was speedwork, a full-tilt race against the stopwatch. When she asked me how she should train to run longer distances at speed, I suggested that she “do the numbers.”

I told her that most champion runners do no more than 10% to 15% of their training at speedwork pace – i.e., faster than about 80% of maximum heart rate. I suggested that although she was doing a great job of developing speed, she needed to develop endurance, so that she could go fast longer. I promised that if she would log enough miles at a high aerobic pace (this woman was not ever going to run long, slow distance), she’d be able to enjoy running all-out for longer distances.

Training truly is a simple matter of numbers. But what makes it more complicated than simply writing down reasonable-sounding numbers and running accordingly is that for every individual runner the numbers are unique.

Let’s say you’re able to run 12 quarters in 80 seconds easily, while another runner – even one who’s similar in age, weight, and fitness – can run no faster than 90 seconds. A hundred Harleys Softails come off the assembly line capable of covering a quarter-mile in very close to the same time. But, unlike motorcycles, human bodies aren’t built from identical parts.

Of course, the general trend of how the body works is pretty much the same for everyone. That’s why “doing the numbers” is useful, up to a point. Every runner who wants to run a fast 10K must work on endurance and speed. They all must do long runs and speedwork. But it’s guaranteed that no two runners, however closely matched in ability, will ever be able to train exactly the same. One runner will get sick while the other has an exceptionally good day. One will have a strong endurance base, while the other is just beginning to develop endurance.

We must all do the numbers. But we need to do our own numbers.

A friend of mine teaches yoga. He says he thinks of yoga workouts as “work-ins.” Two days ago, I had a wonderful run, followed immediately by an equally wonderful “work-in” at the gym. I’m not sure what made everything come together so beautifully on the day. When those special days happen, I’m tempted to start analyzing: “Hm, what just happened? If I can capture the details, maybe I’ll be able to do it exactly the same way, with the same result.” I’m tempted to reverse-engineer my good runs and discover the “system.”

But the temptation has grown less as I’ve grown older, because I’ve learned that life never, ever stands still. And nowhere is this clearer than in running.

My yoga-teacher friend talks about the alternating “delighted and depressed” states that we experience in life. In the ancient yoga lore, it’s called maya, the endless swings of cosmic illusion. It’s said that God made creation by vibrating His consciousness outward from the unmoving stillness in which He exists. Thus, creation is permeated with duality: winter and summer, day and night, male and female, up and down, light and dark, depression and delight.

The ancient sage Patanjali, whose Yoga Sutras define the yoga path, said that the primal bliss of God can be experienced by “neutralizing the vortices of feeling.” The kind of feeling he was talking about is emotion – the excited, up-and-down kind of feelings that swing outward, then plunge back in the opposite direction.

I suspect Patanjali would have had a lot of success coaching runners. I imagine he’d have urged his runners to “do the numbers,” but also keep their emotions in check. In yoga, it’s said that the reward of “neutralizing” wild emotions is a deeper, calmer, more blissful quality of pure feeling that isn’t touched by frothy delight or gloomy depression.

For years, I’ve worn a heart monitor on every run. Which may seem a bit strange, since I’m always preaching about “listening to the body” directly, by calm, inner feeling.

Yet I love the monitor, because it’s a wonderful scientific tool that helps me check my inner feelings against reality. More times than I can count, I’ve been running along and suddenly felt a tiny whisper of disharmony or strain in my heart. Glancing at the monitor, I invariably found that I’d let my pace creep above my comfortable 67% warmup heart rate ceiling, or my 80% aerobic endurance ceiling.

The monitor reminds me to stay disciplined. But it also warns me when I start to let emotion take over.

There are a zillion “good reasons” for running too fast. Probably the most common is the raw ambition. “I should go faster.” “It’s shameful to go so slowly.” “I’m impatient with this slow slogging – let’s see what it feels like to let out all the stops. I bet it’s perfectly okay.”

And so on, endlessly. The problem with raw emotion is that the mind tends to trot along and supply all the reasons why we should follow our strong feelings. And those reasons are always wrong.

The numbers on the monitor tell me to be careful. If I’m only 10 minutes into the warmup and already I’m at 70% of MHR, I know it’s time to do the numbers – check the heart monitor against my inner feeling. Is it truly a day when my body is telling me, via calm, harmonious feeling, that it’s all right to cut in the afterburners? Or am I simply experiencing an exuberant emotion that will quickly turn into its opposite, if I let it lead me around by the nose.

In this way, science and intuition work beautifully together.

Looking back over the years, I don’t think there’s been a single time when I ran with patient discipline, obeying the “inner monitor” of the heart and the outer monitor on my wrist, that I didn’t finish the run feeling wonderful, and knowing that I’d done the best training possible for the day.

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