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

Sun, 13 Nov 2005 09:26:03 -0500

Getting Fast Faster

RUNNING COMMENTARY 597

(rerun from November 2002 RW)

The quickest way to get faster is to race. Racedays are magic. The shared excitement, along with the fear factor, take you places where you couldn't go alone. The racing effect can reward you a dozen or more seconds in a single mile, which add up to a minute or more in a 10K.

That's what can happen on a single day. But the effect is even more magical when you string together a series of races that supplement or even replace speed training.

The best training FOR racing IS racing. That was one of my earliest lessons in running. I learned it in my first season as a runner, before knowing any of the complexities and "necessities" of modern training.

My first coach, Dean Roe, admitted that he didn't know the finer points of running training. But he knew very well the mindset of young runners, who run to compete.

Mr. Roe was mainly a football/basketball coach who trained his runners as he did his team athletes. Between "games," we scrimmaged. That is to say, we either ran real races or simulated ones among ourselves.

At the start I was a half-miler, for the simple reason that every runner on the team was a half-miler. We did little else but race that distance several times a week, and my time improved by 25 seconds and landed me in the state meet as a freshman.

Mr. Roe had moved on to another school by my senior year. But he'd left his lessons with me.

I was a miler by then, and early that season the state's best miler beat me by a full straightaway. Shocked at my slowness and sluggishness, I took a crash course in speed.

Over the next few weeks I raced 10 times, usually at a half-mile. Result: Eighteen seconds of improvement in the mile and a 10-second PR in just a month... and a win at the state meet over the boy who'd beaten me by 100 yards the month before.

I credit this to the frequent and fast racing, with an assist from relaxed recovery runs in between. Later I ran farther, faster, harder on more complicated programs -- but never better in a single month than May 1961.

Even now, two generations removed from that magical month and currently as the most casual of racers, the races still work as speed-builders if I give it the chance. One summer I ran a series of summer all-comers track meets in Eugene, a mile each week for six straight weeks. My time improved by 30 seconds.

When praising racing-as-training, I like to quote from George Young: "You talk of speedwork in terms of interval quarter-miles and all those things. But you don't get the speedwork there that you get in a race."

Young spoke these words more than 30 years ago, when he purposely raced often. He was about to make his fourth Olympic team, in his third different event

As he said, you can't match the excitement, or the effort, any other way. The racing atmosphere brings out your very best in the current race and again in those that follow.

Wonder-worker that racing is, though, it must be taken as a prescription item. Underdose and you don't get full benefit. Overdose and its harsh side-effects surface. Take the wrong "medicine" and it has no effect.

I can't prescribe one proper dosage for everyone. But I can leave you with these tips from a longtime user:

1. Race by the season. Run races often at certain times of year (spring and fall are best, weather-wise, in the U.S. and Canada), and rebuild endurance and enthusiasm in raceless seasons.

2. Race repeatedly at shorter distances. Run 5K or below several weekends in a row, or 10K every other weekend.

3. Race below your main distance. Build speed at half that distance -- a half-mile for a miler, 5K for a 10K runner, half-marathon for a marathoner.

4. Recover well between races. Follow the time-honored rule of at least one easy day per mile of the race.

5. Don't stop racing as you prepare for a big race (such as a marathon). Don't sacrifice an experience that livens up your running now and improves it later.

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