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

Thu, 30 Aug 2012 06:41:04 -0400

Slowly, Then Swiftly

RUNNING COMMENTARY 952

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one, which continues from RC 951, comes from the July 2005 issue of M&B.)

Long slow distance makes for long slow races? You couldn’t tell it by two Canadian masters. You’ve likely heard that Ed Whitlock from Ontario ran a 2:54 marathon at age 73. You might not have heard the name Herb Phillips, a British Columbian who ran 2:47 at 64.

Whitlock isn’t a hero of mine for his race pace. He impresses me more with the utter simplicity of his training, as well as its relative slowness. Now I’ve come to feel the same way about Phillips.

In 2003, when Ed became the first marathoner 70 and older to break three hours, he reported training two hours a day at “a glorified shuffle” of about nine-minute mile pace. He only sped up in races, those run often and at a wide range of distances.

When he later broke his 70-plus record by running five minutes faster, I asked him if he had trained the same way. “Basically yes,” he replied, “but runs were a little longer and a little faster.”

More often than not he now ran THREE hours at a time. “I averaged four of those a week for the 16 weeks prior to the marathon,” he said, “and the odd week I ran seven days at three hours. Other days were for races, rest days before races and somewhat shorter training runs.”

Think about what Ed just said. He ran the time-length of his marathon dozens of times between June and September. At, say, an 8½-minute pace he covered about 21 miles a day – or 140-plus in his biggest weeks.

This training came at an age when recovery between runs is supposed to be sluggish. He could carry this load because he trained almost two minutes per mile slower than he raced.

Ed wrote, “The more training one does, the better – if one can avoid injury, and I was fortunate in that regard. Simple LSD works for me – no fancy training routines.”

Herb Phillips is younger than Ed by nine years, and faster. His training is similar, which is to say simple. Herb too runs long and slow, and races fast and often.

In the three months before his 2:47 marathon Herb ran 25 miles six times (plus five more 21s). Rarely was a run shorter than 10 miles. His pace was as relaxed as 8:35 per mile and only twice dipped under eight. This for a runner who averaged 6:17s in his marathon.

“I think you’d be surprised at how slow I train,” said Herb. “Eight-minute pace is fine with me, and 9:30 per mile is okay too.”

The slowness lets him go long, often, without hurting himself. Where did that speed come from? His races – four of them during September alone (before the early October marathon), none longer than 10K, none slower than six-minute pace.

Herb Phillips ended with a warning that Ed Whitlock probably would echo: “This is not a recommended plan. It works for me; it won’t necessarily work for anyone else. It definitely won’t work for an inexperienced or an elite runner.”

Don’t try to copy the two Canadians’ programs minute for minute or mile by mile. Instead let them show you that running can be as simple as blending slow training with fast racing.

RELAXING PACE

One of the most basic tenets of training is a hard one to sell to ambitious, impatient runners. It’s that you must run less than your best most of the time. Put another way, you can’t go all-out all the time.

Maximum efforts are prescription items, best taken in small and well-spaced doses. Put yet another way, you must pace yourself. Find what your speed limit is in the races, then back way off from that on all but a few of your runs.

The hardest runs are challenging and exciting, but also temporarily damaging. The easier ones repair the damage and bring you back stronger for the next challenge.

The trick is knowing how much to relax your pace. What is slow enough to run day after day but not too slow to give a training benefit? Where is your building zone, your comfort zone?

You can monitor your heart rate, running at a certain percentage of maximum. Or you can measure and time every mile, staying within a predetermined pace range.

But there’s a simpler, and I think better, way to settle into a pace that’s right for you. Just relax and let whatever happens, happen. Don’t force a pace onto your run. Let the right pace for the day, and the moment, automatically find itself.

I once identified that pace as “slow.” If you don’t like that word, try “easy,” “gentle,” “comfortable” or “relaxed.”

At first I thought that LSD was a training method. It turned out to be more of a relaxation system. My race times improved on this system compared to what I’d run while speed-training almost daily. This wasn’t because I’d found any magical new method, but because for the first time in years I relaxed, recovered and rebuilt between the races.

Relaxing meant setting no time goals on most runs, checking no splits, accepting whatever pace the day’s feelings and conditions allowed. By putting instinct in charge, my normal pace – my comfort zone – became one to two minutes per mile slower than my current racing rate for that same distance.

My runs in the early LSD years lasted about an hour a day, and my pace (on the rare occasions when I checked it) averaged 7:30 per mile; for longer runs it slowed by about a minute. Race-day pace for similar distances dropped as low as 5:30, while marathons peaked at about 6:30. I didn’t try to make this pace happen. It just did.

Today, more than three decades further along, I can’t race any distance as fast as my slowest training once was. But the plus-one to plus-two gap between relaxed pace and racing pace remains constant.

This isn’t just my gap. It works for younger, faster runners as well. I once surveyed many of them for the book Road Racers and Their Training. Their usual training pace, such as six-minute miles, might sound otherworldly to us.

Don’t judge them by their raw pace but by their gap between racing and relaxing. On easier or longer days they typically trained a minute or more per mile slower than they raced. They too softened their pace and ran much less than their best most of the time.

UPDATE: Slow-training Ed Whitlock continues to set world age-group records. Last year, he ran a 3:25:43 marathon after turning 80, then lowered that mark to 3:15:54.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. The other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being published in segments in Marathon & Beyond magazine, starting with the September issue.]
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