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

Wed, 25 Sep 2013 07:12:09 -0400

Extra Miles

(This piece is for a book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from January 1982.)

Whatever the criticisms of mega-mileage training that has been the style since the 1960s, one positive fact is beyond dispute: this type of running has had a profound effect in making the sport available to more types of people. Not everyone can go fast, that is, but anyone can go long.

Emil Zatopek ran high mileage in a low-mileage era, and was often questioned about “doing too much.” The Czech runner answered that he had limited talent, and this was the only way he could correct nature's oversight – by gaining speed through endurance. The four-time Olympic gold medalist mainly practiced interval training, but ran so much that it qualified as endurance work.

Peter Snell ran then-unheard-of mileage for a miler. The New Zealander trained like a marathoner in the early 1960s and won three Olympic gold medals on the track.

One reason this worked so well for Snell might have been that he was heavy. He gained weight easily if he wasn't running a lot. The 100-mile weeks gave him his raw-boned look.

Some runners have gone too far in the direction of slow distance training in recent years. The abuse of distance parallels the abuse of speed two decades ago, which had then sent the pendulum swinging toward marathon-type training.

The pendulum has swung back toward speed again. Built into this is a sneaky bias, a kind of elitism that hasn’t been part of the sport in a long time.

Athletes from Olympic 1500-meter champion Sebastian Coe and world marathon record-holder Grete Waitz on down brag that they only run “quality” miles and that they “never take long runs.” Coe’s father and coach Peter added that “long, slow training only makes you a long, slow racer.”

This is fine if you happen to be born with great speed and lean genes, as Brit Coe and Norwegian Waitz were. But what of the Zatopeks and Snells who aren’t naturally fast or aren’t naturally slim?

If they have serious racing thoughts, they have to make up with strength for what they were shorted in speed, and they have to burn up more calories than they consume. Nothing better accomplishes both than healthy doses of distance.

UPDATE FROM 2013

Some things never change, even more than 30 years later. Names and products have changed, and so have the numbers of runners and races. But our favorite topics are the same now as they were when the newsletter stood at its starting line in 1982.

We talked then about our times, our mileages, our shoes, our injuries, our diets. Now I look back to Running Commentary’s first issue. This first column touched on mileage and its role in weight control. Reading it now, you might think I haven't come very far in my writing since then. I choose to think that some themes never grow old.

As I type this addendum, the lines above carry extra meaning. My weight has crept to an all-time high – surely a direct result of running the least since my teens. I’m not truly obese and still run some, but now see more clearly than ever the link between pounds and miles.

Peter Snell, 5-10 and 175 pounds at his prime, was an inch taller but 50 pounds heavier than Sebastian Coe at his best. Snell is now an exercise physiologist, living in Dallas. Coe, the only man to the Olympic 1500 twice, chaired the organizing committee for the 2012 London Games.

Grete Waitz, who lowered the women’s marathon record four times, died in 2011. Emil Zatopek passed in 2000.


[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 PDFs, readable on Kindle devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Just released was Joe’s Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Learning to Walk (not an e-book), 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 serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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