When I started out running in high school then later in college; I would watch the Rocky movies the week of a race. There was even a few times in high school where I’d watch the original on Monday, II on Tuesday and so on while “doing” homework (this may explain my stellar GPA). Even though the original will always be my favorite; nothing beats the training scene in Rocky IV when Drago is in the fancy gym with a team of doctors and trainers tracking everything while Rocky is out in the cold chopping wood and climbing mountains (in his leather coat and boots mind you). Me being me and analyzing everything; wondered why this scene was so enjoyable to me and have always came up with the same answer: the simplicity of how Rocky trained in Russia. He surrounded himself with a few people close to him and used his environment to train his mind, body and soul. Obviously this is a movie and a tad exaggerated but sometimes it’s needed to exaggerate an experience to make a point.
Narrowing the conversation to endurance sports; when I start working with a new athlete 9 times out of 10 adjustments are made in regards to their over-reliance on technology. Some “get it” after a week; others find their GPS watch in my possession for a given time period. I don’t do it to show who’s boss nor because I hate technology; one of my jobs is to kick out the crutch and obsession with technology is often a huge one. Those who always rely on outside sources to inform them how they feel in a given workout or race have a hard time reading their bodies; when the pain and blood are flowing late in a competition your heart rate, pace and power are irrelevant; I have yet to see a trophy given to the athlete that had the lowest heart rate when finishing a race, just the one who ran the fastest.
After you finish a workout; what are the two questions you are asked: How far did you run and how fast did you go? Never fails. A few weeks ago at practice another runner came up to me and asked what zones the athletes ran during the intervals (my response was: hard). Some of our most satisfying workouts have NOTHING to do with hitting numbers but have everything to do with how hard we pushed ourselves or how much we enjoyed the experience. I never want an athlete to walk away from a workout dwelling on the numbers; as long as the athlete hit the effort for the workout then it was a step forward. That simple. Some sessions are to be kept in check and others you have to let em go. We have a lady here who is right out of school and training for her first marathon; about half way through an interval workout she was feeling it more than she should; so told her to let the others ladies go and run her effort. She not only finished the longest workout of her life but after the last one; asked if she could do one more for the 800 she missed when nature called. You think she walked away with a positive experience? Of course. Now if she would have been told to stick to a certain pace regardless of how she felt; she would have blown up and left the track with not only a negative experience but a good chance of getting hurt. On the other side of the coin, some days you just feel great without explanation and staying at a certain heart rate or pace zone would limit a potential great workout. We had one of these here this spring around Shamrock (an USATF 8k race of 35,000 runners). As with all of our harder sessions; the team knows after warm up watches off however this session was a tad different. It started out with a mile all out but the key was this: they were given no splits, just the descriptor to run like mad. I looked down at my watch after the first lap, shook my head and smiled; they were getting after it. Our first two ladies crossed the line in 4:40 followed by a few others coming in a tad later but everyone was in under 5 minutes. They couldn’t believe it; for most of them it was a PR. 4:40 is fast for any female; especially marathoners who just worked a full day. They had no taper, no splits, no pacers to block the wind; just each other on a basic high school track. It’s amazing what the mind can do when it’s put in the right situation without a limiter.
One of my favorite questions I get often is if we don’t use stereotypical metrics; how do I measure improvement? Simple; when athletes PR. Every year there are ‘breakthroughs’ in training, nutrition and recovery products. However, we should not forget the basics; the things that ACTUALLY makes us faster. It is training and common sense; so often over shadowed by the promises of improvements without putting in more time or effort. I am lucky enough to coach some incredible people; one of them I have had for over 2 years on our team and last weekend had a great in-depth talk with her. One of the questions we asked of each other was if money and time were not a factor; would I change anything in regards to her training. My answer was a simple no and here’s why: she has PR’d in the mile, 5k, 8k, 10 mile and half-marathon all while juggling work, grad school and (as we all do) life. Why would I wanna change that? If I hired a fancy strength coach to help her with kettle bell swings or found some new age nutrition expert; sure she may improve 1% in that area but at what cost? More than likely the 99% would suffer so then I ask: Did I make her better or worse? If simple is keeping an athlete happy, healthy and they are improving in races; don’t change anything based off something you read on-line or what your favorite pro runner does.
One of the best examples of nailing the basics is looking at 2 of the top British runners of all time and the current marathon record of 2:07. As of now Mo Farah is the most dominant distance track athlete of our time and it is very well known all the technology he and his coach employee in training from Alter-G treadmill to a special strength coach and having his recovery days dialed in to an exact pace of 6 minutes a mile. While no one can argue his success on the track owning PRs of 12:53 and 26:46, his much hyped marathon debut was a different story finishing in 2:08. On the other side of the coin is Steve Jones who was a very accomplished 5k/10k runner himself sporting PRs of 13:18 and 27:32 respectively. Steve had no nutritionist nor a recovery lounge to use; he just used his environment and work ethic to be his best. Steve got up to (what he estimated as) around 100 miles a week and did all his work based off time and effort. His hard days were workouts like “5 minutes intervals hard” and “2hrs 20min steady”. Before his first completed marathon; Jones took off his watch and decided to race his competitors and listen to his body. Off Mars bars and Coke; Steve finished his first marathon in 2:07:13 breaking Alberto Salazar’s World Record. Despite all the advances in science, 33 years later, 2:07 still stands at the British national record.
I could care less what anyone’s max heart rate is or lactate threshold in our group; as long as they are all happy, healthy and improving. Physical tests do not show how tough someone is or what kind of heart they have when the chips are down in the middle of a tough one. This sport is aerobic in nature and statistical data tends to be more a novelty than the indicator of performance. I always want athletes to concentrate on the stuff that has made them improve; taking the easy days easy and when the hard days come; run them to the best of their ability on the day. Do this day in day out, lose yourself in the process and I’ll take my chances with that philosophy then anything money can buy. Never doubt the heart and will of a motivated athlete; trust me on that.