Thursday, 29 November 2012

Project Me: Update #2

As readers of the this blog will know, I prefer not to spend much time talking about my own training. I like to leave the workout blow-by-blow and day-in-the-life cataloguing to the younger guys, who do it more entertainingly than I could. That's why this unprecedented third "me" post in a row is likely to be my last for a while. After this one, I think the usefulness of my own immediate experiences as a guide for others will have been exhausted, at least for a while. After this one, I will try to broaden the focus back to the bigger picture, which is where I prefer to fix my critical gaze.

Last week, I wrote about how I had perhaps forgotten what I knew about the importance of proper recovery when I plunged into my new/old training regime back in the late summer (which I detailed in the post before that). As I completed those comments, however, I secretly hoped that there was still some time to reap the benefits of my redoubled efforts. Sure enough, helped by a timely course of antibiotics to clear up a stubborn sinus infection, my strength began to return, and I could finally feel some of the positive effects of all those additional kilometers. The first sign that the ship may be righting itself was that my easy runs were suddenly 10-15 secs/km faster at the same effort. Then, I managed to complete 20mins at perceived 8k race effort on the Fort course (the same one on which I has just lost the AO Championships) at 3 secs/km seconds faster than I had just raced it (passing through 5k in 16:03 versus 16:19). Finally, my last session before heading out to Vancouver for the National X-C Championships-- a light session of cruise intervals-- was so fast I had to consciously apply the brakes. According to my almost foolproof formula that race feel and performance can be predicted based on the average of an athlete's previous two workouts, I was more than ready to withdraw some of my fall training investment, however diminished by the aforementioned errors in judgement (leading to illness) earlier in the fall.

In a return to form from 2-3 years ago, I was ultimately able to win the masters championsip, and with what turned out to be far less effort than anticipated. I finished completely convinced that I had another lap in me at the pace I was going ( if I had, and had been in the open 10k, I would have finished higher than the last time I ran with the senior men-- 2009, when I finished 47th). This victory was at least as easy as my previous two in the masters division (2006 in Vancouver and 2007 in Guelph). Granted, I was lucky to have drawn a good day in terms of general feel; but, the vast majority of the performance can be attributed to increased fitness, in spite of now being much closer to 50 than the 43-44 I was the last time I won. There are, I believe, some important lessons for all masters runners in all of this. My experience needs to be added to the evidence offered by the exploits of older athletes like Peter Magill (and elite American athlete who is almost as good at 50 as he was at 40-- and he was very good at 40!), Jerry Kooymans (who, at 57, and in spite of repeated setbacks due to injury going back to his 20s and 30s, manages to astound each season), and, of course, the legendary Ed Whitlock-- evidence that commitment to training has a far greater impact on age graded decline than the actual rates of decline themselves currently suggest. In short, I think the actual rates of decline (after age 45 in particular) say as much about social psychology as they do about physiology!

Granted, there is no winning in the contest with father time. There are some well documented and inescapable physiological aspects of aging that bear very directly on our ability to maintain performance levels in endurance sports like distance running, not least of which are diminished cardiac output, respiratory power, muscular power, and biomechanical range of motion. I would maintain, however, that anecdotal evidence is beginning to show that these parameters are perhaps much broader and more variable than we might imagine, based on records of past performance. There is always the possibility the athletes like me, Magill, Kooymans, and Whitlock are extreme genetic outliers, like the tiny percentage of the population that makes it to age 100 and beyond. However, based on my familiarity with the training of these and other very good, but perhaps less well known, masters runners, I’ve become increasingly convinced that training volume and intensity may rival, or even exceed, genetics in accounting for superior advanced-age performance (although I’m open to the possibility that genetics may play some underlying role in the ability of these kinds of athletes to continue training at a high level).

I may be the fastest masters athlete within P-K, but I am far from alone in terms of my ability to confound the age-grading tables. Several of my athletes have shown similar performance profiles in their late-40s/early 50s. And while it is possible that we’re all genetically lucky, it is a fact that we share, along with the likes of Magill, Kooymans, and Whitlock, an inclination to train at, or very near, the level we always have. The likes of Magill and Whitlock, in fact, train longer and harder than they did in their early 40s, the former covering up to 100miles per week, on top of a demanding regimen of strength training, and the latter routinely surpassing those totals on his daily 3 hours runs (and this, in his 70s and 80s!). As I acknowledged in my September post, I was exhibiting the typical late 40s slippage until I decided to go back to the kind of training I knew to be the bulwark of performance for runners of all ages-- longer, slower volume, and less frequent but heavier race-pace sessions. My inspiration for doing this was, in fact, some of my own masters athletes—Agathe Nicholson, Bob McGraw, Clive Morgan, and Steve Blostein—all of whom, I noticed, had been training harder than I had for a year or more since turning 50! (And what are the odds of so many genetic outliers appearing in one small group in one small town?)

I plan to continue with my current plan in the hopes of running faster at 49 and 50 than I did at ages 46 through 48. With some luck and good coaching, I may even manage to defend my National Masters X-C title next fall, at the age of 50.

Finally, there are lessons for peak-age runners to be found in the exploits of late-age masters athletes. Superstar Cam Levins and his 150-190 mile weeks are one thing, but can 20-something distance runners really imagine that they are doing all they can to unearth their potential when there is an 80 year old man logging more volume than they are!? If Ed Whitlock’s ancient tissues can absorb and respond to this much pounding, is there a serious runner under 40 who couldn’t also benefit from running as much as he does, if he/she really entertains thoughts of breaking through to the next level, or the level after that? The trick, it would seem, is understanding, and truly believing, that running more is the only way, and proceeding to find a way to do it. North American athletes are just now absorbing the lesson that the East African’s example had been available to teach them for more than 20 years-- the post-Lydiard years, when we seem to have misplaced the great Kiwi’s seminal insight, namely, that general aerobic conditioning is the basis for all distance running. American runners (and now Canadians too, thanks to the success of Cam Levins, Mo Ahmed, and our marathoners—high volume trainers all) have taken this lesson to heart, and have struck a small crack in the monolith of Kenyan and Ethiopian dominance. It is my hope that, with the help of the internet(!),no young North American or European runner with big dreams will ever enter the sport under the illusion that “quality” (hard interval training alone) is a substitute for “quantity”, as they did during the decade of decline (the 1990s).

P-K at the National X-C Championships:

Big congrats are in order to a number of other P-K athletes who made the trip to Vancouver last weekend. Heather Jaros stunned with her 12th place finish in the Junior girls race. For an athlete who was only there to gain experience, this was completely over the top running. And,for once, this is an early teen prodigy I am sure is not overdoing it in training! Meanwhile, in the Junior Men's race, Nick Belore, running in his first ever national championship, tore through the field to finish 22nd, ten spots better than his OFSAA result a month ago. Finally rounding into top form in November, Nick no doubt would have been shooting for top 15 had the race been a couple of weeks hence.

In the masters division, the P-K men's 50-plus team (with support from Myra Levac) won the thing, propelled by Bob McGraw and Myra's top three individual finishes. Clive Morgan and Steve Blostien were the other two members of that team.

I will finally update the P-K performances of the month next week.


Anonymous Audrey said...

Nice work, coach! Super impressive and inspiring!

29 November 2012 at 18:26  
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