Monday 23 February 2009

D-Wykes Update

I had a request to provide an update on Dylan Wykes—Canada’s almost fastest male marathoner of 2008—now nearly one year on from his superb Rotterdam debut. I’ve decided to accede to this request (without, incidentally, asking DW himself!) because: one, I don’t think he’d mind; two, I’m not afraid of revealing any secrets—secrecy being generally alien to the spirit of this sport; and three, Dylan, being that unfortunately rare Canadian example of a talented middle distance runner (i.e. with P.B.s of 4:01/mile and 7:58/3k, both set at 19 years of age) making a serious attempt at transforming himself into a road racer, and a marathoner in particular, offers an interesting and useful case study for younger runners and their coaches.

As a preface, I should explain that, at this particular point in his career—i.e. at 25 years old, with respectable middle distance P.B.s and two successful marathon build-ups under his belt, and at the beginning of the 2012 Olympic cycle—Dylan is still very much engaged in trying to become a more complete distance runner in general as well as a faster marathoner—goals that I see as complimentary rather than at odds. As a relatively young North American athlete specializing in the marathon, Dylan is an anomaly largely because it is, and has been for a while, part of the prevailing wisdom in this part of the world that marathon racing and training must come at the expense of an athlete’s performance at the shorter distances, and his track performances in particular. The dominant practice in this part of the world is to wait until one’s talents have peaked at the shorter distances before moving into the next event range—a conventional wisdom that has survived since at least my own early days in the sport. When I was first leaving the age-class ranks, it was commonly believed that an athlete should expend all of his abilities over 800m and 1500m—a process that could easily extend into an athlete’s mid-20s—before moving to the 5,000 and 10,000m, regardless of his apparent basic aptitude for the longer stuff. The theoretical premise behind this approach—if it had one—was that success at these longer distances would require great finishing speed, which could only be developed through an extensive early focus on middle distance training and racing, with the subtext being that finishing speed was a simple function of an athlete’s pure, middle distance speed. Athletes from other countries—and those from Africa in particular, where the depth of running talent has always compelled runners to try their hand at all distances from early age-- however, have repeatedly shown that early specialization at the longer distances, for those with necessary aptitude, is not only possible but probably optimal for long term development. Athletes like Kenisa Bekele and Haile Gebresellasie of Ethiopia, and Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya, among the literally dozens of possible examples, have shown that training for the 5,000, 10000 and marathon from the moment of athletic maturity (i.e . the late teens or early 20s) is a more than viable approach—and, as Bekele and Gebresellasie in particular have shown, that it certainly doesn’t blunt one’s finishing speed! (My own view is that, because finishing speed is actually a function of pure speed+ aerobic power, it is possible to improve one’s kick as much through greater aerobic conditioning as through running at higher speeds— and that, in fact, simply trying to race and train at higher speeds beyond the age of 18-20, particularly if doing so requires restricting total training volume, will not only impede the long term physical and psychological development of young runners; it will also, paradoxically, inhibit the development of finishing speed over the longer distances!)In short, Dylan’s move to road racing and that marathon beginning last year does not signal the end of his efforts to become a better long distance track racer--quite the opposite. We have every reason to expect that, like many, many younger athletes worldwide who have decided to specialize in the longer road events, Dylan’s greater average training volumes-- and specifically, the physiological and psychological adaptations these have instilled-- will ultimately make him a better long distance runner on and off the track.

To wit: Dylan’s training focus for the past couple of months, and in the 8-12 weeks before he begins his build-up for the World Championship marathon in Berlin, has been and will continue to be on preparing to run a fast track 10,000m. (This, I should say, is a very tricky business for any North American athlete. With only two or three serious opportunities—all of them on California, and in the early spring—the North American athlete must train successfully through the winter, toe the line is top shape, and nail his/her performance on the first or second attempt, as often there will BE no subsequent attempts--what with spots on the starting line of these races being so precious, and therefore available only to those with bona fide and relatively fresh credentials). The first step in preparing to race on the track will has been, and will continue to be, simply spending more time training on the track (which will, in the short term, necessitate trips to the Dome, a 400m indoor track, in Ottawa). These track sessions will focus on a mix of “repetition” pace (1500m race pace), “interval” pace (3k/5k) and 10k goal race pace running, with the emphasis on the latter two pace ranges. An example is last week’s session, which Dylan did while down in Providence, R.I. This workout consisted of: 6x1000m @ 10k race pace, except with 1x200 in the middle of each rep @ 30-31 secs. The recovery throughout was 2:00 to max 2:30 of easy jogging. His warm-up and warm-down were the usual 20-25mins + strides. As it happens, this particular session didn’t go according to plan, as Dylan, fighting some very strong winds, was unable to recover from the pace changes and so could not hit the target of 2:47-49 per rep, instead averaging over 2:50.

Dylan’s other workout of the week during this phase, which he will be do on either the track, treadmill or the road, will consist of 30-40mins of running at mostly threshold pace, sometimes in single bouts, sometimes broken up with short recoveries, and sometimes as fartlek sessions of various types. His workout last week, also done on the track was, for instance: 7x 1mile @ threshold pace with 1 min. easy jog/hydration recovery, plus the usual 20-25min warm-up/down @ 4:00-4:20/kms. With the support of fellow Providence College Alum Pat Tarpy, this one went much more smoothly, with the two of them averaging 4:46 for the session. As a further example of this kind of session, Dylan’s workout for this week will be a fartlek type consisting of: 6mins, 6mins, 5mins, 4mins, 3mins, 2mins, 1min all with 1min. @ 3:35-40/km pace recovery. The first 4 reps will be run at threshold pace and the last 3-- the 3, 2 and 1mins segments—are to be run at progressively faster speeds, finishing at, we hope, close to 3k race pace.

Dylan’s total volume throughout this cycle-- in all but his peak race weeks-- will continue to be relatively high, although obviously below his peak totals during marathon-specific prep. And, he will continue the practice doing the majority of runs in single bouts. He will typically run 75mins per day @ 3:45-4min/kms, with one or two days of 2x 45mins at the same pace, for a weekly total of around 130-135kms. He will also continue with his detailed and cutting-edge core and upper body strength routine-- this, in addition to his trademark, Radcliffe-like attention to rest and nutritional detail, has been the secret to his great general health and over-all consistency over the past 2-3 years. (For details of this, you'll have to ask him yourself!)

In a week or so, Dylan will depart for a warm-weather training venue yet to be confirmed. Here he will make the final push to prepare for what we hope will be his first of two or three track 10ks—the March 27th event in Palo Alto California. I will revisit his progress in the blog periodically over these next few weeks.

Next week, I’ll say something in answer to the question of why runners like Dylan—runners with strong, age-class middle distance backgrounds who have made the move at a relatively early age up to longer racing distances—have become so rare in North American over the past 20-odd years.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Of Circles, Vicious and Virtuous

Going in circles is, of course, a big part of our lives as runners, whether it’s going around the track or moving through the cycles of our yearly training routines. There are, however, some kinds of circles that we would like to reinforce and others we’d like to break.

As any experienced runner will tell you, successful training—training to which the body seems to respond and adapt—seems have a momentum of its own. There are times when the elements of our training—from our strength routines, to our long runs, to our sleep patterns-- seem mutually reinforcing, making training seem almost effortless. Borrowing a term from psychology used to describe the self-begetting nature of positive behavior, I describe this blissful state of ascending cyclicality as the “virtuous training circle”. That same experienced runner will also tell you, however, that the virtuous training circle is sometimes followed by its dismal opposite—the “vicious training circle”, in which misfortune feeds on itself in a downward spiral of fatigue, injury, despair, and de-conditioning.

Common sense would dictate that the secret to maintaining consistent improvement and maximizing our enjoyment of running is simply to prolong our periods of virtuous circularity and reduce those of vicious circularity, or perhaps to eliminate these bad cycles altogether. But how to do this? To begin, we need to understand both what are the constituent elements of the virtuous circle and why it so often collapses, turning into its terrible opposite. We then need to understand how to interrupt the vicious circle before it becomes entrenched.

The first thing we need to be aware of when it comes to cycles is that variability in our body’s response to any training stimulus is inevitable; some degree of cyclicality is, in other words, to be expected even in the most sophisticated training plan. Our bodies simply cannot continue to respond indefinitely to the same kinds of training, whether it be long, slower running or very intense interval sessions. The slip from virtuous to vicious circularity thus often begins when the athlete or coach fails to vary the training stimulus within an single year, or even year-to-year in the case of younger athletes. When diminishing returns from a particular type of training inevitably begin to manifest themselves, the response is often to increase the stimulus, or else discontinue training altogether. The first response often leads to frustration and injury, while the second leads to unnecessary losses of gross training adaptations. The solution, therefore, is to alter or vary the training stimulus at the point of maximum response. For example, we would want to discontinue or drastically reduce our emphasis on interval training-- i.e. workouts that entail reaching 95-100% of max Vo2 and heart rate for a total of 10-15mins per session-- in favour of other kinds of training—say, threshold-pace running, which entails running for 20-40mins per session at 88-92% of max Vo2 and heart rate—when we feel we have reached maximum fitness for the season (ideally, just before we approach our seasonal goal races). We might also want to reduce our total volume of running in favour of some faster, more intense running at the point where all those extra easy miles are beginning to feel more burdensome than stimulating. The bottom line is that a properly designed training program allows for a normal amount of cyclicality, and is sensitive to the individual athlete’s response to training.

Second, we need to understand that the secret of the virtuous circle is the rational regulation of daily training effort. What does this entail? In short: the careful relating of training speed to current fitness, which can be easily accomplished using the famous “Vdot” tables found in Jack Daniels Running Formula (of which more below*). Jack Daniels’ single greatest contribution to endurance training science-- and the main ingredient in his famous “formula”—is his discovery of the optimal training speeds required to promote the key physiological adaptations involved in increasing distance running performance. For every athlete at a given level of fitness, Daniels showed, there is a set of training speeds that, when blended within a training cycle, will stimulate optimal physiological responses; optimal, that is, in terms of maximizing potential gains and minimizing the potential risks of training, all other things being equal. Before Daniels (and still post-Daniels in some quarters), conventional wisdom among coaches and athletes was that harder was always better; that, in other words, the fastest speeds attainable within in a given bout of training would provide the most vigorous physiological response (with the added benefit, perhaps, of making the athlete “tougher”). The genius of Daniels was to show that in the longer run it was best to train at speeds which, while perhaps slower than an athlete could attain within a given training session if he or she were to go all-out, were optimal in terms of providing the sought-after stimulus-- whether increases in max V02, the improvement of running economy, or the promotion of beneficial changes in the cells of the blood and muscles-- while reducing the inherent risk of a injury, illness and diminishing returns associated with intense training. Daniels was able to clearly isolate the percentages of maximum effort multiplied by the length of the training session that would supply the desired training stimulus, and beyond which diminishing returns and increase risks would set in. He was able to show, in short, that there was such a thing as “surplus effort” where training was concerned. Now, it is not true that Daniels’ prescribed paces can never be safely exceeded. Daniels point is simply that doing so on a regular basis will provide no extra benefit, some increased risk, and quite probably a reduction of training consistency, perhaps ending in the dreaded vicious circle of injury and illness. So, when you encounter an athlete enjoying the pleasures of a prolonged virtuous-training-circle you will no doubt have encountered an athlete who has learned how to control his or her effort levels in training. The consistent athlete—the athlete who manages to avoid as far as a possible the vicious circle of injury, illness and stagnation—will be the athlete who does not race her easy training runs just because she feels good on a particular day, or who does not treat every hard training session as an all-out test of her fitness.

Unfortunately, simply understanding Daniels is not all we need to control our training paces and improve our over-all consistency. Determining our correct paces in the real world—the world in which weather conditions may vary, life stresses may intervene, and our conditioning may (and hopefully will) be improving—is an inexact science that requires the judgment of an experienced coach and/or an athlete who has refined his intuition where effort management is concerned. In this latter respect, we can all do well by adapting Daniels advice about racing— i.e. run the first 2/3s using the head and the only last 1/3 using the heart (in the figurative sense) —to our daily training. Our emotions must inevitably become invested in our training, but they can’t be allowed to regularly override what we know and can feel is best effort level for us in the longer term. Good daily effort management, combined with other basic elements such as proper rest and nutrition, will take us a considerable distance in establishing the bases for the virtuous training circle.

But what happens when, in spite of our best efforts, things break down and injury or illness stop the momentum of our virtuous circle? In addition to the natural cyclicality of the trained body, the necessity of adding greater volumes of running on a year-to-year basis in order to continue improving will guarantee that many of our good cycles, no matter how carefully managed, will eventually end, sometimes in injury and illness. And, for masters runners, we must add the variable of an aging body, which makes optimal training a perpetually moving target. In these instances, the trick is to prevent the entrenchment of vicious circularity and promote the reestablishment of virtuous circularity as soon as possible. Here, the best approach is to actually plan for injury and illness by developing a clear routine of cross training which can be taken up as soon as an interruption of more than a few days occurs. This removes the temptation to push through injury and illness-- or, the opposite, to become suddenly completely inactive-- and perhaps to become depressed and desperate when our pleasurable run of successful training and racing is suddenly ended. It may seem counter-intuitive to think about and plan for failure when things are going well; but, developing and maintaining a cross-training routine during good times is the best way to ensure we’ll get back to them as soon as possible when they inevitably end. Another piece of Danielsian wisdom is useful here: Daniels advises to look upon our “down” cycles as opportunities to rest psychologically, to learn about ourselves as athletes, and to remedy any long term deficiencies that may have led to our downfall. The down cycle can, in other words, be a productive time in its own right—provided that it is not allowed to develop a momentum of its own that prevents us from returning to our normal training when we want and need to. In the end, the solution to preventing— or breaking, if need be—the vicious circle of injury and illness is knowledge, (“self” and otherwise) combined with good planning and disciplined attention to detail.

Maintaining or reestablishing the virtuous training circle—that nirvana of the distance athlete—is not a matter of luck. Successful runners of all ages—runners who continue to improve and to enjoy their running from year-to-year—are successful not because they have won some genetic lottery; rather, they tend to be successful because they are open to learning and have developed the ability to temper their instincts and emotions with the formal and experiential knowledge they have gained from year-to- year. Less successful athletes—those who remain mired in repeated cycles of injury, illness and stagnation, and who may feel forced to abandon the sport—tend to be those who, to borrow a phrase from Albert Einstein, endlessly repeat the same failed action expecting, somehow, a more favourable outcome.

*For those without handy access to a copy of Daniels’ Running Formula, a simple and relatively accurate way to calculate your proper training paces is to use his “six second rule”, which involves adding six seconds per 400m to your training pace as you move from “repetition pace” (the pace you can run for 4-5mins all-out), through “interval”, “threshold” and “marathon” pace (the paces you can run for 3/5k, 10miles/Half Marathon and marathon respectively) and finally to “easy” pace (the fastest pace you should run for most of your recovery days). For example, this would mean someone with a best mile time of 5 minutes would run her “repetition” workouts at 75 secs per 400m and her easy runs no faster than 1:39 per 400m, or in the range of 6:40 per mile/4:30 per km..

P-K on the road

P-k athletes competed this weekend in pleasantly seasonal weather conditions at Kingston's annual Twosome 5k run (for officual results, see sportstats) In the couples competition, mother and son team Cam Levac and Myra McDonald finished 3rd overall. In the individual competition, 50 year old Bob McGraw's 17:50 was the performance of day among group members (and the 2nd best performance of the day against all-comers) on an age-graded basis. Rookie Myra McDonald's 20:29-- representing a stunning improvement in fitness over the past 6 months-- was a close 2nd to Bob's run. Expect Myra to terrorize the local competition in the 50+ age category for some time to come! As fast as he his, Bob may have a more difficult time locally this year, as club member Clive Morgan cut the 2minute-odd gap between he and Bob from the fall X-C season down to 40 seconds. The return to competition of Rich Raflaub at some point this year will add further interest to this age category, and perhaps set the stage for a P-K sweep of the men's master's team competition at the 2009 national X-C championships in Guelph!

Monday 9 February 2009

P-K at The Dome

The first track outing for P-K in 2009 took place at the famed Dome Louis Riel in Ottawa’s east end on Saturday. Among those taking part were Rejean Chaisson, Dylan Wykes and junior triathlete Alex Hinton in the 5k and 3k respectively. Rejean and Dylan were following up their Half Marathon outings in Florida last month and young Alex was testing his fitness after a winter spent concentrating on his swim training.

Dylan’s plan, which he executed to near perfection, was to attempt to run for 3k at close to his spring goal 10k pace (2:50/km) before dropping his pace gradually over the final 5 laps. A slightly too quick initial lap—understandable given this was his first track 5k in over 2 years— created some difficulty in finding the correct pace (68 secs per lap); but, by 4 laps, he was in the rhythm and looking smooth. Only an inability to lift the pace to the planned 64-63 over the final two laps—due probably to a lack of adrenalin, the 10:30am start time, and a full Tuesday session going in—stood between him and perfect execution of the pre-race plan. He finished in 14:04—his 3rd fastest ever 5k, and his fastest solo effort by far. He is now perfectly positioned to enter his spring track build-up, which will begin with a month here in Kingston and continue at the warm weather/altitude venue (probably Flagstaff, AZ). His first spring track event will be a 10k in Palo Alto CA at the end of March. The direction of the remainder of the spring season will be determined largely by that result.

Rejean went into his 5k, only his second ever in competition, following a successful recovery from his difficult Half Marathon experience in Naples. Running alone behind Dylan and two Brookes Marathon Project athletes, however, he struggled early with the planned pace of 3:00/km. He would drift further from the target , but avoid a complete collapse of form, finishing in a useful 15:21—a time 25 seconds slower than his best, but still easily better than his personal best from less than a year ago (16:05). With the Ottawa transit strike finally over, Rejean can return to devoting his energies exclusively to running, rather than wasting them on getting himself to work, on foot, along poorly plowed sidewalks, and through -30 degree temperatures!

Meanwhile, Alex, expecting to be handed his head by 10th grade prodigy and fellow triathlete Tristan Woodfine, surprised himself—and probably young Woodfine too—by producing a personal best run (8:54), capped by a strong from-the-front final kilometer of 2:51. He was eventually nipped at the line by Tristan, who was also very close, or perhaps just under, his personal best time. With a total of zero track sessions under his belt since ending the season last June, Alex is ideally positioned to make huge inroads against his personal bests at 1500m and 3k as the school season unfolds; and, with the level of talent currently amassed in the senior boys ranks across the province this year, he will need to in order to be a competitive factor!

Note: The highlight performance among the younger members of the group was grade 10 Cam Levac’s 24 second personal best in the 3k (9:51 from 10:15 last July)—a very promising mid-winter outing for an athlete still in his first year of formal track training!

Monday 2 February 2009

Who Needs a Coach?

Reading Brad Hudson’s (former elite and now top level U.S. coach) recent book on training, Run Faster, and Chris Kelsall’s entertaining interview with irrepressible Kiwi coach/author Keith Livingstone (, it struck me that a disproportionate number of coaches with serious competitive backgrounds were actually self-coached during their racing days. Hudson reveals early in the book that he was largely, and deliberately, self-coached during his competitive days, and that this contributed significantly to his eventually becoming a coach. Hudson says that the experience of developing his own program—the research, the trial and error, and the ultimate realization that his potential went unfulfilled—made him, inadvertently, the insightful coach that he has since become. Livingstone also, while now a kind of orthodox Lydiard acolyte, tended to do his own thing during his short but fairly successful athletic career. Like Hudson, Livingstone cites his own experience of success, failure, and unrealized dreams as a self-coached athlete as part of his impetus for becoming, not just a coach, but a would-be “coach-of-coaches” through his new book on training, Healthy Intelligent Training. Even legendary figures such as Arthur Lydiard and Percy Cerrutty were largely self-coached during their competitive careers.

Now, I’m certain the vast majority of working coaches, if they were ever competitors themselves, were never self-coached. The dominant model, it would seem, is that of the former athlete emerging as a successor to a “master-coach” within an established coaching system. This is the informal practice at many U.S. universities, and the formal practice in places like Japan, with long histories of distance running success. Since the serious self-coached athlete—the athlete operating on his own and outside of an established coaching system-- is relative rarity, I think it is interesting in a paradoxical way that so many of this breed, myself included, find their way into the coaching ranks.

The Hudson example in particularly interesting in that the “adaptive running” approach he outlines in the book is designed in part, he says, to help make the reader a better self-coach. If I read him correctly, Hudson would like to coach people to be increasingly coach-less! The apparent paradox I refer to couldn’t be clearer; Hudson, in fact, compounds it. What he says, in effect, is: I, a former self-coached athlete, have become a coach in order to teach (coach) you to be like I was—self-coached! It seems to me that if he really wanted athletes to be better self-coaches—to learn to listen intently to their own bodies and develop their own systems— his first bit of advice would be: “Put down this book”! My point, however, is certainly not to pick on Brad Hudson, who was a fine athlete and is now, by all accounts, a very fine coach; it is to point out that the former self-coach who decides to become an advisor to others necessarily enters into a contradiction of the “do as I say, not as I do (or did)” variety. It is as if he/she is saying, parent-like: I have made mistakes so that you won’t have to. In the case of the former self-coach, however, there is an added twist, in that he/she is also saying that the knowledge and authority with which I advise you comes directly from my own experience as a self-coach, and not just in a negative way-- in the way, for instance, that the former alcoholic’s authority on the dangers of alcohol comes only from his own failure as a drinker of alcohol. Former self-coaches may feel they made important mistakes in the past which they can help others avoid, but they also know, and say implicitly, that they developed exceptional positive knowledge of the sport through trying to figure much it if out on their own, using their own bodies as experimental subjects. Former self-coaches who ask you to listen to their guidance are thereby assuming that you do not want to become like them (except for Hudson, who seems to want it both ways!); that, in others words, you do not want to try things your own way and are uninterested in developing your own body of experiential knowledge and coach-ly intuition.

Does this make formerly self-coached coaches hypocrites? My answer is no. In my experience, athletes--myself included in my days as a serious open competitor—are actually not as interested in one day becoming coaches themselves as they are in getting the most out of their athletic potential, and would rather choose a path more likely to lead to the latter than the former. There will always be athletes who, through stubbornness, a kind of geeky love of research and planning process that goes into coaching, or, as in my case, simple necessity, who will opt to do things their own way—and many will likely go on to become coaches themselves. The vast majority of athletes—young or old, recreational or elite— however, will prefer to rely on the knowledge and experience of better qualified others to guide their way. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. The world of expertise is, after all, a minutely sub-divided one in which specialists in one area of life—from auto mechanics to medical specialists-- learn to trust knowledge of others in fields outside their own. I therefore solve the apparent paradox of former-self-coach-as-coach by simply saying that, while my own self-guided journey through the sport has been rich and rewarding, you, being probably more interested in simply running your best, would probably not want to try to replicate it. Given the choice, you -- as I, had things been different way back when-- would probably be happier simply avoiding obvious mistakes than making them yourselves in order to learn from them!

Who, then, needs a coach? Everyone who would rather ride the wheel than have to reinvent it themselves; everyone, in other words, who would simply like to become the best athlete they be by leaving the mistake-making, the research and the planning, to those who have been down the road before them-- to the mavericks and the geeks, if you will!