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Amelia Island Runners is proud that nationally known running coach Roy Benson is a member of our club and an active volunteer. He provides free individual coaching advice at our Wednesday group runs and works with our 1st Wind Runners youth running group, and with the FBHS cross country team. Now Coach is sharing his decades of knowledge with us in written form -- with this column written especially for AIR.

Mastering the Fudging

Hello all you Veteran, Master, Senior and Fellow Geezer runners (and even you younger whippersnappers who might be over-training).


Permit me a question: any chance your legs might be getting a tad weary? Another quick question for you all: is the hard training not paying off anymore? Have you hit a plateau, or, worse, are you taking a worse beating from Dreaded Rival than your 401k has taken from the stock market? Well, maybe it’s time to review your workouts while thinking like a scientist. Training is, after all, nothing but exercise where we test if going faster, further, more often, harder, or easier will help us run faster.


Fiddle With The Variables


In this Grand Experiment known as “training,” your volume, your intensity, and your frequency are the experimental variables. The goal of your training is, of course, to find the right combination of these variables in their various degrees and amounts that produce positive results. However, scientific experiments can have only 1 variable. This allows its responses (changes) to be measured while the other components, the givens, are kept constant during the measurement period.


So, maybe changing just one thing, ie, how hard, or how far, or how often you run, while keeping the others constant, is worth considering. This then might result in training and racing that is steady, even, smooth and consistent.  No more breaks in training to recover from breakdowns that cause those micro losses of fitness. Just consistency of workouts, races and recoveries.


Yes, coaches understand that deciding whether to cut back the weekly mileage, or to not run so hard, or to not run so often is a very tough decision. (You ever know anyone who thinks that by training less they are going to get faster?) Yes, it ain’t easy to take it a little easier. But when your results aren’t there, perhaps doing a little experiment would be worth it.


Well, if the secret is cutting back a little on just ONE of the variables, then the question is, “which one?” Too many times, I see or hear about frustrated runners desperately changing two or even all three of the variables. Then, when improvement results, they can’t really pinpoint why things went better. Sure enough, they go right back to the former routine and then crash again. Well, that’s when the scientific model of measuring the results of just one changed variable would help.


Interval training offers a great example of how to apply the experimental model to a typical workout.


The classic formula of an interval workout has 4 potential variables:

  • The distance to be repeated; i.e., ¼ miles, ½ miles*, etc.

  • The number of repeats; usually enough to cover between 3 and 6 miles.

  • The time of the repeats; i.e. the pace as in how fast you will cover the distance to be run “x” number of times.

  • And, the “interval” of recovery; i.e., the activity and length of time or distance it will take for you to pay back the oxygen debt and be ready to run the repeat distance again.

* note that all tracks in the USA have been converted to metric distances. However, for all practical purposes distances of 100, 200, 400 meters are equal to 110, 220, 440 yards which are, of course, 1/16, 1/8, ¼ of a mile. By way of full disclosure, 400 meters is 7.5 feet short of 440 yds. By the time you get to 1600 meters, it is actually 30 feet short of one mile.


One Runner’s Study of One


As an example of the experimental model, here’s one provided by one of history’s greatest runner/scientists, Dr. Roger Bannister. He did this back in 1954 as he prepared to be the first human to run a mile in under 4:00. Because he was deep into his medical studies, Bannister had only a half hour each weekday during his lunch hour to work out. His solution was to make his key interval workout into a classical experiment with three of the four of the workout variables fixed as givens. Keep in mind that there is no fixed and certain formula for an interval workout. It is up to each runner and/or coach to arbitrarily design each of the components according to the objective of the workout while keeping general guidelines like these in mind:

Bannister set the number of repeats as a given at 10. ( A little short of the usual goal of trying to cover at least 3 miles of repeats, but Bannister didn’t have a very long lunch hour.)


The distance he decided to run was a given at 440 yards. (The usual goal of an interval workout is to run multiple times over a fraction of the race distance at paces as fast or faster than the goal pace of the targeted race. Thus, for Roger 10 x 440 yds = 2.5 miles.)


The interval of recovery was a given at a 220 yard jog. (Bannister had enough experience to know that he would be pretty well recovered after jogging slowly for half a lap around the track. He probably also realized, if he took close to the same time to jog each recovery 220 , that the effect of the workout would be to mimic an actual race as his fatigue accumulated over the course of the workout and each repeat got a little harder. We’ll discuss this aspect of an interval workout in more detail a bit later.)


The first objective of this “study” was to find out what kind of shape Bannister was in. Therefore, the variable was going to be time. He decided that the givens were 10 x 440 with a 220 jog. Therefore his experimental model was 10 x 440 in ?? with 220 jog. The average time of those quarter miles would tell him how much more work he needed in order to put 4 non-stop 440’s together as he started his final training phase in March, a couple of months before the track season would start. The first workout produced a :67 sec average for the 440’s.

Bannister’s new goal then became improving his fitness. He hoped to get the average under 60 seconds by the May.

Therefore, on the same day of each following week, Bannister’s lunch-bunch repeated this exact same workout. As their fitness improved, their times dropped. He finished the experiment the day he averaged 59 seconds per 440, fit and ready to race. He felt certain that if he could run 10 interval 440’s that fast, he could do four 440’s without stopping to recover between each lap. He did, of course, when he ran the four 440’s, exactly 1 mile, back to back in the world record of 3:59.4, on May 4, 1954 almost 60 years ago.


The above sample is a micro view of workout variables found in an interval workout. Bannister’s took place within the easily measured confines of interval training on a track. Granted, he wasn’t a Master, Senior or Fellow Geezer runner trying to hold off the Aging Fairy. But, if you, too, are burning with desire to race successfully, the answer to your racing and training dilemma might be to study the bigger picture in the context of your complete training pattern. 


A Fire Sale of Changes


At the start of this column, I listed the standard components of an exercise session: duration, intensity and frequency. You might want to try my suggestion that you vary, for example, your weekly mileage (duration) by running 5-15 fewer miles per week, depending on your normal total. See if that freshens you up. Running less may make your legs friskier and faster at the races so that Dreaded Rival sees your heels again.


Or you can cut back in the frequency (either the number of your hard workouts or even the total number of days per week you run.) Following the wisdom of the typical hard/easy training pattern, most runners do three (counting the long run) hard workouts per week. If your pattern of hard days is Sunday long run, Tuesday high intensity intervals or hills, Thursday threshold run, maybe it’s time to condense the Tuesday and Thursday hard days to Wednesday. You can just rotate, week after week, the above hard workouts in order to retain their respective benefits. . More recovery days and more time between hard workouts might freshen your legs, getting them frisky and fast so your times get faster than old Dreaded Rival’s.


When All Else Fails, Try Fudging the Data


If manipulating those variables doesn’t work and you’re considering easing back on the intensity of your hard workouts, DON’T DO IT! If you want to race fast, you’ve got to train fast. Faster workouts = faster races. In fact, the real point of the above suggested changes is this: by not running so much or so often, you may find yourself with extra energy. You will discover your workouts returning to your former, faster paces. And they will be at the correct 95% effort for a hard day. You won’t be running those 98-100% , race-like efforts that struggling runners often resort to when they mistakenly think that they should just train harder. Sacrifice some of those obsessive miles. Overcome anxiety attacks from worrying that you’re not working out hard as often as you used to. But stick with your speed work. If you have to, fudge by walking, instead of jogging, between repeats. A little extra recovery time that allows your legs an extra bit freshening and also lessens the chance of a pull or strain is not a bad trade-off. But remember that intensity is a given. Maybe your pace at 95% effort isn’t as fast as when you were young and good looking. But in your “mature” years, high intensity efforts should be the last variable to change. If so, and you feel that walking the interval is like cheating, you could also be like Bannister. Just run fewer repeats, but run them fast.


A Hell of a Consolation


Unfortunately for some of us, these carefully crafted concessions to old, tired legs may not work. If that’s the case, try substituting “fast” in Barack Obama’s retort to Hillary that “You’re good looking enough.” Perhaps that will comfort you as you realize that your “fast” is relatively slow and it’s time now to give up the hard stuff. If the intensity is more crippling than productive, cut out the hard, fast speed workouts.  Also, cut back on the volume of your workout mileage. It’s now time to focus instead on frequency. Why? Because getting out the door several days each week for short, enjoyable jogs the rest of your life is much better than having to race Dreaded Rival on your bicycle.


Stay frisky, my friends.


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