Can Runners Improve Speed AND Endurance? Ha ha ha

I’m helping the executive producer of a new film, Finding Happiness starring Elisabeth Rohm (she plays Dolly Polito in American Hustle).

It’s a wonderful flick.

Virani Ramsden, Elisabeth Rohm, David Eby
L-R: Goatherd Virani Ramsden with Finding Happiness co-stars Elisabeth Rohm and David Eby. (Click to enlarge.)

A software developer donated time to build an Android app on the film’s theme of happiness.

Great idea.

And because it was a great idea, people immediately started thinking of ways to make it BIGGER.

I’d worked on tech projects long enough to get a bad feeling when I saw the project getting LARGE, without a working app to show.

Six months and a bazillion emails later, we’re climbing down off the beanstalk. We’re building (guess what) a sweet little app that can grow naturally.

This morning, Cool Tools founder Kevin Kelly reviewed an amusing book, The Systems Bible, by John Gall. Former title, Systemantics – because systems act up.

I laughed when I read the following passage, which perfectly describes the dreaded Android project:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The parallel proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.” (Emphasis mine.)

I reckon you’re thinking, “What on earth does this have to do with running?


Looking back over my wasted past, I see that every time I’ve turned my training into a complex system, it has let me down horribly.

The problems begin when I ponder a perfectly reasonable question about training. Such as: “How can I work on endurance and speed at the same time?”

Easy! I’ll do a little speedwork during the week, and I’ll do a long run on Saturday. The rest of the time, I’ll do easy, relaxed “filler” miles at a “recovery” pace. It’s logical!

Ha ha. Here we go – a complex system that’s itching to go antical.

Things get ugly when our cretinous hillbilly subject runner (me) ponders, “Wal now, exactly whut is a filler mile?”

Naturally, because I’m a runner like everyone else (rectocranially inverted), a filler mile is a mile that’s run “however fast I feel like on the day.”

And “recovery pace” is, um, “as fast as I feel.”

And, wal, guess whut?

“Complex systems exhibit unexpected behavior.”

– John Gall

A complex system plays nice as long as every one of its tiddly little parts does its job correctly. As the number of parts increases, the risk that something will break rises exponentially.

Throw in a halfwit (me) to manage the system, and the odds of killer oopsies expand explosively.

Now, children, remember this – never try to increase more than one training variable. And always do it slowly.

Simple systems work.

Got that, Mr. Stupid Runner (me)? Never work on speed and endurance at the same time.

That was the genius of Arthur Lydiard: “We’ll work on aerobic power for twelve weeks. Then we’ll work on strength for a while. Then we’ll do some anaerobic speed for a month. And we’ll finish with a couple weeks of foot speed intervals.”

And, guess what? We’ll make each module a simple system. We’ll focus on the task at hand (endurance, strength, aerobic speed, anaerobic foot speed) and we’ll cut back on everything else.

Training is one of those deals where the rational mind can fool us with laughable ease. We runners are too clever for our own good.

Beware the thought that begins: “It’s logical…”

“Sure, we can work on endurance and speed. Why not? It’s logical.”

All unawares, we’re creating a complex system out of the box. And it won’t work.

Oh, well, you say, it worked for Frank Shorter and other elites.

Two things. Great runners are different animals. They’re very different beasts physiologically. David L. Costill has my back on this. The great sports physiologist proved that a 2:10 marathoner and a 4:00 finisher are so physically different as to be almost separate species. Great runners are born. Sure, Frank Shorter could run 140-mile weeks that included endurance and speedwork. But you and I aren’t Frank Shorter.

Second, great runners have different brains. They have champion-type smarts. And your average hillbilly runner (me) does not.

I’m not kidding. People like Alberto Salazar and Bob Kennedy and Bill Bowerman and Arthur Lydiard know runners and running. They never have to consult the book. They can look at a runner and know what’s right or wrong. They have the instinct, born of thousands of hours of running and watching runners. That knowledge is so deep that it’s gotten smooshed into an intuitive feeling. They hardly have to think about it. They know.

Sure, Alberto uses state-of-the-art technology that’s paid for by Nike. But it doesn’t guide his coaching. He does.

It’s why Lydiard was able to send a runner out to do back-to-back 22-mile hilly runs on successive days to break out of a period of staleness. It worked. Of course it did. Arthur knew.

Lydiard could deal with the complexities of coaching thoroughbred runners engaged in on-the-edge training. Like building them up to running 6-minute pace for 22 hilly miles on Sundays, then running 15 and 10 miles at a high aerobic pace during the week. Without breaking down.

I can’t do that. Few can.

The deal with big complex systems is that, as John Gall says, when they fail, they fail big.

At the elite level, training is inherently dicey. Better keep it as simple as possible. At our level, don’t even think of making training complex. It’s gonna break. And so will you.

Want to train for a first marathon? Keep it simple. Put 99 percent of your energy into the long run. The long run should feel pretty darn good. If it doesn’t, you’re running too long. Or you’re running too much or too fast during the week. Or you need to adjust your fuels. See how things get complex quickly? Keep it simple, estúpido (yo).

Hello. Fun running is different from training, which requires deep, long, careful thought and spunky, consistent discipline.

I’m very, very happy and contento when my training is sensillo. When I watch my body and don’t make it do what it isn’t ready for. It’s the price I pay for doing fun hard stuff on the rare days when my 72-year-old bag-of-bones tells me it’s okay.

First get a simple system working. Believe me, it’s a lovely feeling.

Then let’s see.

(Thanks to Fred Reed for suggesting rectocranial inversion. Fred is the best funny nonfiction writer active on the Web. Example: Fred Goes Flying.)

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