Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 29 May 2003 08:29:02 -0400

Learning to Race

RUNNING COMMENTARY 468

"Teacher" is an honorable title, one that I wear proudly even if it doesn't quite fit. True, I teach at the University of Oregon. But these aren't classes with lectures, guest speakers, textbooks, term papers and tests.

Students get enough of all that the rest of their school day. Here they want a break -- in an activity class, not another academic one.

In my running classes I do little more than tell the students what and where to run. I'm less a teacher than a run-planner, route-plotter, way-pointer, clothes-watcher, cheerleader and record-keeper.

They spend most of the class time running, not hearing about it. They learn by doing, not by studying.

The only written lessons reach students by e-mail, not as lectures. Each lesson is only one paragraph long, and reading it is optional.

Runner's World published the mini-lessons for my beginning runners in the April 2002 issue. Those below go to students moving into 5K/10K racing.

1. WHY RACE? Running in races is not a requirement for calling yourself a runner. Running is easier and safer without this added effort. Racing is hard, and moderately risky -- but also exciting, challenging and motivating as it pushes you farther and faster than you could go alone. The race itself puts you on the line -- not just the starting line but at the red-line of your abilities, where you can push no harder without breaking. Racing puts your training and resolve to their final test. You don't take this test alone but in the company of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of runners like yourself. You aren't competing with them; you're cooperating. The competition isn't with others but with the distance, the course, the conditions and the voice inside that pleads with you to ease off. Everyone else in the race is tested the same ways. You push, pull and pace each other.

2. WINNING WAYS. A great beauty of running is that it gives everyone a chance to win. Winning isn't automatic; you still have to work for success and risk failure. But unlike other sports there's no need to beat an arbitrary standard (such as "par" or an opponent's score). You measure yourself against your personal records. To the runner, a "PR" does not stand for public relations or an island in the Caribbean. It means "personal record," and this PR may represent the greatest advance in the history of this sport. The invention of the digital stopwatch worn on the wrist turned everyone into a potential winner. Here was a personal and yet objective way to measure success and progress. It didn't depend upon beating anyone, but only upon how the new numbers on the watch compared with the old ones.

3. RACE DISTANCES. Nearly all road races now run by the metric system, so if you grew up under the "mile" system you must learn to interpret these distances. One kilometer is 1000 meters or .62 mile. One mile is 1609 meters or about 1.6 kilometers. Here are the standard racing events and their mileage equivalents:
1500 meters (1.5K) -- .93 mile
3000 meters (3K) -- 1.86 miles
5 kilometers -- 3.11 miles
8 kilometers -- 4.97 miles
10 kilometers -- 6.21 miles
12 kilometers -- 7.46 miles
15 kilometers -- 9.32 miles
20 kilometers -- 12.43 miles
half-marathon (21.1K) -- 13.11 miles
25 kilometers -- 15.54 miles
30 kilometers -- 18.64 miles
marathon (42.2K) -- 26.22 miles

4. BIG DAYS. Most runs need to be easy. This is true whether you're a beginning racer or an elite athlete. (Of course, the definition of "easy" varies hugely for these groups; easy for the elite would be impossible for the beginner.) Training for the distance and pace of races and actually running these events is a prescription item, taken in proper, well-spaced doses. New racers are wise to limit themselves to one big day a week. On this day, run longer than normal (as long as the longest race distance but at a slower pace) or faster than normal on this day (as fast as the fastest race pace but for a shorter distance), or go to the starting line in a race (combining full distance at full pace). Experienced racers can put a long run AND a fast run into the same week, but don't want to squeeze both of these PLUS a race into one week.

5. GOING LONGER. Distance, unlike speed, is almost limitless. No matter what your level of talent, no matter how many years you have run, no matter how old your personal records are, the possibility of covering longer distances still exists. This helps explain the appeal of the marathon. First-year runners can take pride at finishing one in twice the time the leaders take to finish, and longtime runners can feel good about going the distance an hour slower than their PR. Not all runners can go faster, but just about anyone can run longer. It isn't a matter of talent, but only of pacing, patience and persistence. However, you can't take big leaps in distance all at once. The safe limit for progress is about 10 percent per week -- for instance, no more than one mile added to the recent 10-mile run.

6. GOING FASTER. A little bit of speed training goes a long way. In fact, a little bit is all you should do because, in excess, speed kills. Most runners can tolerate fast training that totals only about 10 percent of weekly mileage. This can come two major ways and one minor one. The first big way is as intervals -- a training session of short, fast runs with recovery breaks between. The other main way to train for speed is the tempo run -- at race pace or faster for a shorter distance. The smaller way to gain and maintain speed is with "strides" -- ending the warmup by striding out for a hundred yards or so, one to five times, at the top speed that you would ever race. Strides also have value at the finish of a relaxed run, as a reminder to push at the end of a race.

7. GOING EASIER. Pacing isn't just for a single run. It's also something you practice from day to day throughout the week. Some runs must be hard if you're training to race, but most must be easy to compensate for that effort. In other words, you run less than your best much of the time -- neither long nor fast. The easy runs may be the most important because they're the most frequent. You can calculate ideal pace for easy runs several ways: at least one minute per mile slower than you could race the same distance; or about 75 percent of maximum heart rate; or simply whatever feels comfortable, not too fast or too slow. The last of these guidelines is the simplest to use. What feels right usually is right.

8. TAKING TIME. A runner's second most important item worn isn't shorts, nor is it a T-shirt. You can wear other clothes than those. After shoes, your next most valuable equipment purchase is a watch. Buy one with a stopwatch feature, and make time your main way of keeping score. Time can make you an instant winner by telling exactly how fast you ran a distance, and maybe how much you improved your personal record (PR). Another, more subtle value of the watch: It lets you run by time periods -- by minutes instead of miles. This has several benefits: freeing you from plotting and measuring courses, because minutes are the same length anywhere... easing pressure to run faster, because you can't make time pass any faster... finishing at the assigned time limit no matter your pace, which settles naturally into your comfort zone when you run by time.

9. GETTING HURT. Runners get hurt. We rarely hurt ourselves in the sudden, traumatic ways skiers and linebackers do, but the injury rates run high. Most of our injuries are self-inflicted -- from running too far, too fast, too soon or too often (and sometimes on surfaces or in shoes not right for us). Prevention is as simple as adjusting our routine. Immediate treatment seldom requires total rest, but only a change in activity. Use pain as your guide. If you can't run steadily without pain, mix walking and running. If you can't run-walk, simply walk. If you can't walk, bicycle. If you can't bike, swim. As you recover, climb back up this exercise ladder as the pain level allows: swim, bike, walk, run-walk, run.

10. GETTING SICK. Take illness symptoms as seriously as you do those of injury. But instead of using pain as a guide, substitute the words "fever" and "fatigue." The most common ailments are the flu and colds. Never, ever run with the flu's fever. Don't just rest while feverish but take an additional day off for each day of the illness, or you risk serious complications and much-delayed recovery. Colds are more mundane -- and more common. They usually pass through you in about a week. Rest during the "coming-on" stage (usually the first two to four days). Then run easily (slowly enough not to cause heavy coughing and nose-throat irritation) during the "coming-out" stage. Throughout recovery, obey your fatigue signals. You got sick in the first place by overtiring yourself.

(The final half of these lessons will appear in RC 469.)

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