Runner Genetics and the Inner Coach

RunBlogRun posted an interesting interview with David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

I’m always on the lookout for information that will help me train wisely and well. (Translation: run faster, longer, enjoyably.)

Note the emphasis on “enjoy.” A powerful tenet of my athletic faith states that training well and enjoyably is the same thing. When I give my body the training that makes it improve effectively and efficiently – I find that it’s supremely enjoyable.

The examples from my running are countless. Suffice it to say that every time I listen to the quiet feelings that tell me the proper pace and distance, I improve and come out of those runs feeling wonderful, without fail.

Now, then. A huge secret that David Epstein discovered while researching the factors that make great athletes is that training must be individual. Note: this doesn’t means we can simply individualize our training schedules in a general way. “I’m a mid-level marathoner. I’ll set a schedule that calls for 60 miles a week, max.”

No, the individuality of our bodies intrudes itself into the tiniest details of our training. And lacking a super-coach who can fly along beside us and whisper moment-by-moment guidance in our ear at each moment of every run – we must find a way to monitor and adjust our training individually, all the time.

And, guess what? It’s not complicated. Those old lags who’ve been reading these articles can raise their voices and repeat after me: “Listen to the calm whispers of intuitive feeling in your heart.”

David Epstein was inspired to study the science of exercise when a close friend finished a road race, then took a few steps and collapsed and died. He suspected the answers would be found at a fundamental, genetic level.

What he discovered is simple:

We each have a genome that is unique in the world, and so, for optimal performance we would each have a unique training environment.

David concludes that the best way to individualize our training is to hire a coach:

RBR, # 10. Where does a great coach fit in? How important?

David Epstein:  Massively important, for most people, anyway. Again, what exercise genetics is showing us is that cookie-cutter training just doesn’t, well, cut it. The best training would be tailored to an athlete’s genes and physiology, and I think a coach is the person who helps an athlete figure out what that is…. Now there are coaches for very specific skillsets and types of players. I have a friend who was a scholarship runner at Illinois and then went into elite special forces in the Air Force, and when he got to the most important training, he and his peers were each given their own coach for one-on-one training! One of the takeaways from [his] book is that training should be individualized, and that makes coaching incredibly important.

What are we supposed to do if we can’t afford a fancy-dancy coach?

I believe there’s a step-by-step method that’s very simple. Individualizing training isn’t rocket science. Of course, that doesn’t mean to say it’s easy – it takes great self-discipline, but it pays huge rewards.

We simply need to take the time and trouble to:

1. Warm up for a long time, slowly, and check the body’s Inbox during the warmup. What messages is the body sending us about its readiness to run today?

2. Slowly increase the pace, and insert tentative bursts at a quicker speed. Which pace feels exactly right?

3. Continue at that pace for (only) as long as it feels harmonious. Adjust as needed.

The key to individualized training is to run in what I’ve come to think of as the “harmony zone” – because that’s how it feels: harmonious. No matter the distance of the run, the speed, or whether we’re tired or well-rested, there’s always an exact pace that produces the greatest feeling of “rightness” at each moment. Finding that pace is simply a question of running a bit faster and slower and checking our feelings.

Intuitive feeling is a quiet and subtle thing. It takes a while to learn to hear it reliably. Becoming adept is simply a matter of acknowledging that it’s important, and then paying attention. Again and again. The voice of the body is never silent. With practice we can easily tune our awareness to its signals.


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