Monday 29 June 2009

Update--Nationals Track 10k

Just a quick follow-up post to last week's entry about my participation in the nationals track 10k. As it happens, I abandoned this one at 5400m, due to the heat and consequent impossibility of meeting my time goal. I managed to stay on 31:00 pace for 2 miles before falling off sharply in mile 3. I reached 5k in 15:50, after which I tried one more lap in order to get an real time pace measurement. A split of 79secs told me that anything under 32mins would be impossible under the conditions. Having no other goals besides the national age group record (31:43), and wanting to preserve my body for some big upcoming races (I get much more beaten-up from racing-- at any pace-- now than ever before) I had no problem with letting this one go.

Meanwhile, group members Dylan Wykes, Rejean Chiasson and Matt Pieterson held up somewhat better, although all sacrificed time due to the heat and humidity. Perhaps next year, when the event will be held in Toronto again, the event will be scheduled a little later in evening, so that the racers can not only compete but challenge their personal best in one of the few serious domestic opportunities to do so.

Look for a longer entry on another topic later this week.

Monday 22 June 2009

The Living Relic That I have Become

The other day, I entered my first National 10000M Track Championship since winning the event on a lovely Montreal summer evening in back in 1998. Since the announcement that the 10,000m would be recombined with the main meet for the first time in almost a decade, and held on the beautiful new track at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, I'd been toying with idea of entering. My hesitation stemmed from a feeling that, at nearly 46 years of age, I had no business contesting a race meant to determine our nation's fastest long distance runners. My idea was take this one available opportunity for a competitive track 10000m to attempt to break former Toronto Olympic club-mate Jerry Kooymans' national age group record (31:43) to go with my recent national age group road best (31:12). I was also concerned, however, to avoid looking like an eccentric old crank, struggling along, laps behind the leader, trying to make a point that no one really understood or cared to see made. I also didn't want to get in the way, physically, of all the younger, faster runners.

Then, on the day of the entry deadline, I had a look at the list of confirmed entries. In doing so, I learned, first,that I was one of only 17 or so athletes (3 for the women!) interested in accepting challenge of racing 25 laps of the track-- an extreme and pure test of the distance runner's basic mental and physical chops. Second, I learned that, with a seed time based on my recent road performance of 31:11, I wouldn't need to fear getting in the way of too many of my younger competitors. Most entrants, as it turned out, had seeds closer to mine than to the fastest athletes in the field-- Reid Coolsaet, Dylan Wykes and Andrew Smith. Recalling that, in bygone decades, I'd had to face a strict standard of around 30mins flat to gain entry to a field that often numbered in the 20s of entries, I wondered, as I have so many times before, how it had come to this. The top athletes in this year's field are good, but no better than the top seeds I would have faced 25 years ago. Behind them, however, there are now only a tiny number of athletes fast enough to meet the entry standard from 25 years ago.

Since turning 40, I've become used to accepting congratulations for being able to hold my own, to some degree at least, against competitors young enough to be my offspring. To anyone interested, however, I've always tried to explain that my results are less the result of my peculiar abilities-- whether owing to good genetics or simple persistence-- than the product of the rather precipitous decline of Canadian long distance running beginning in the early 1990s. I only appear to be exceptional, I explain, because I am a living relic from a once great (or at least much better, in both absolute and globally relative terms) running civilization. While quite good at my peak, I was not by any stretch the best of my own era. I am still able to compete with the good runners of today not because I was freakishly good in my own prime, nor even because I'm particularly well preserved physically. I can still compete, rather, because I am the product of a period in Canadian distance running in which the merely good runners were so much faster than they are today. I am unique only in the fact of having had a combination of the ability and the desire to stick with it longer than almost all of my contemporaries. Make no mistake, I have lost much in terms of basic capacities. As a former 19 year old with the ability to run well under 30mins on the road for 10kms, and with 20 years of serious racing and training on top of that, I simply had so much more to lose in terms of psychological skills, racing savvy, aerobic power and endurance. The result is that, in spite of my decline, I still find myself more or less in the competitive mix in today's weaker fields. Thus I remain: a kind of living record of the way things were, standards-wise, not so long ago. Don't have the time or patience to do a comparative analysis of the race results and rankings from 25 years ago and today? Just look at me: a good but never great runner from the 80s and 90s who is nevertheless, at the age of nearly 46, still able to enter a national championship without fear of becoming a complete spectacle.

While I can't deny getting some enjoyment out of still being able to go head-to-head with much younger athletes, I also confront the current state of stagnation and decline in Canadian long distance running in my guise as a coach; and, as a coach, I often wish today's young athletes, led by the athletes with whom I work, would restore a standard of performance in this country that would retire me from open competition for good! Adducing explanations for the decline of Canadian (and, indeed, North American and European distance running)running has by now become a kind of electronic cottage industry (to which, in fact, I have been a direct contributor). Answers typically range from: the social and cultural, tinged with the moral ("kids don't want to work hard anymore/are distracted by various electronic inducements to physical passivity" or they are "over-scheduled and burned-out"); to the pseudo-scientific and racialist ("African kids have genetic advantages that make them unbeatable by non-African kids, non-African kids know it, and have given up all hope"; to the political ("phys-ed/physical fitness in schools has been progressively de-emphasized and/or cut, making the average kid far too unfit for distance running", or, "Canada has tougher drug testing than many other countries, which has allowed a demoralizing gap to open up between our best and the drug-fueled global standard"). I have sympathy for some variants of all of these broad explanations for the decline. I think, for instance, that athletically talented kids tend both to play too many different sports at the same time, rather than seasonally, and to take their sports too seriously at too young an age, aided and abetted by over-invested adults. The result tends to be large numbers of talented young adults with no taste for serious sport during their prime developmental years. I also think that there are structural factors that have shifted the balance in the sport in favour of athletes from parts of the developing world, and East Africa in particular-- structural, but not racial or genetic, however. Differences in the age demographics of the developing versus the developed world have, among other things, served to skew the performance lists in favour of East African countries as against those of the developed world. Add the fact that the average Kenyan is over 20 year younger than the average Canadian-- and in the prime age range for distance running-- to the economic reality that international distance running offers fairly ready access to hard foreign currency for the sons and daughters East Africa's poor and it is a wonder that their dominance of the sport is not more total than it now is. And, no doubt, the almost overwhelming "African-ness" of distance running today is bound to create a subtle disincentive to non-African kids the world over. Non-African kids can can certainly be excused for not seeing distance running as "their" sport to any significant degree(in a way that, for example, a young British athlete circa 1970 might have done). (It is interesting to note that Britain's top young athlete on the men's side-- Mohamed Farrah-- is of African descent, as in Canada's top man, Simon Bairu. Where some might be inclined to explain this in racial or genetic terms, I would be more inclined to see it in terms of the power of a good example-- at least until someone comes along to furnish the still elusive proof of a broad "natural" advantage among African runners).

My choice in confronting the decline of competitive long distance running in Canada has been, however, to emphasize the possibilities rather than the obstacles to the re-growth of the sport in this country. (I should emphasize, however, that I would and will remain a fan of the sport regardless of who is winning internationally; it's just that my "sphere of influence" happens to be Canada). More Canadian kids than ever before are being introduced to distance running, even if often too early and too seriously; and, the standards of performance in the age group ranks are much stronger than they have ever been (a paradox, considering the decline at the top). In fact, the main problem in Canadian long distance running today concerns the "long distance" part. As the entry numbers for the middle distance events at this year's nationals attest, middle distance running is alive and well in this country (even if it, too, is somewhat lacking in competitive depth). The problem is that far too many competent young middle distance athletes abandon the sport after high school or university without ever having tried their hand at the longer distances, which tend to require a much longer apprenticeship to master, even with the best training program (without expert supervision, it's highly unlikely that a young athlete could successfully negotiate the transition from, say, miler to marathoner). My strong suspicion is that many of our second tier middle distance athletes are, in fact, potential first tier long distance athletes, toiling in the wrong event range. The current system of youth development in Canada-- although, in truth, there is little that is systematic, in the sense of longer term goal orientation, about it-- tends to produce scores of good, and a few very good, 800/1500 and occasionally 5000m runners, but very few 10000m-marathon runners at all, let alone fast ones. Beginning in grade school, the standard approach to youth running is based on an intense seasonal orientation, focused on low volume, frequent racing, and 3 or more intense track or tempo sessions per week. This approach is a proven method for turning out vast quantities of athletes capable of running very fast 800 and 1500s by their mid-teens (witness this year's OFSAA results, where sub-2:00 800m and sub 4:00 1500s were being run routinely by 15/16 year old boys and sub-2:20 800s and sub-4:50 1500s were de rigeur for 14 year old girls). As a basis for producing sufficient numbers of prime-age long distance runners, on the other hand, this approach is now a proven dead end. Chances are, an athlete who has only ever trained in this way will balk at the suggestion of spending 5-10 years in their 20s and early 30s running two or three times the volume they had become used to as a youth and junior athlete. Most will find it easier to continue (if they continue at all beyond their school years) doing what they have been used to, rather than exploring their longer distance potential.

My medium term hope for Canadian distance running is that this trend will begin to turn around, just as it has in the U.S. over the past 10-15 years. I'm hoping that many more of our talented high school and college-aged middle distance runners will become interested in contemplating an athletic future in the longer distances-- 10000m to marathon, and road racing in general. In fact, it has been one of my principle aims in establishing Physi-Kult running to encourage more young athletes to take this step, and to make my knowledge about how to do it as widely available as I can. I have tried to begin this process in my own work with teenage athletes. My coaching practice with age group athletes-- still admittedly experimental at this stage-- has been designed to encourage slower but sustainable year-to-year improvement, and to promote an understanding in young athletes that one's full potential takes years realize. In terms of day-to-day practice, this entails an emphasis on longer, easier running, with total amounts increasing yearly, along with fewer hard interval sessions and races than most youth programs entail. Working against the grain in this way is difficult. It would be much easier in many ways to do things in the now established way-- that is, open my group to very young athletes and "hot-house" them to fast performances in the younger age class ranks. Some kids (and their parents) might be happier this way, at least for a while; but, this would only feed into the trap that is claiming scores of potentially talented young distance runners-- a trap that ends with both unfulfilled athletic potential and possible disillusionment with running in any form in adult life. My choice, therefore, it to try to build a coaching practice around what I know to be the surest path to long term success. In the process, I hope to ensure that, in 20 years, the idea of a 46 year old running in our national track championships will once again seem absurd!

Tuesday 16 June 2009

From Rut to Back to Groove: Counter-intuitive Antidotes to Stagnation

The acutely injury-prone among us might consider it a luxury to have to deal with the "problem" of over-coming stagnation in our training. After all, to stagnate, one has first to train and race uninterruptedly for long enough to temporarily lose one's passion for the training process. However, the feeling of futility and general lack of enthusiasm for the training process is a real and often recurrent problem for runners of all levels of ability and experience, even those whose love of the sport is deep and abiding.

At the very highest levels of the sport, where training and racing is an all-consuming profession, replete with exhausting travel and withering competitive pressure, a loss of the drive to train and race is a natural and somewhat inevitable thing. Before top runners ever reach the point where they feel it's time to scale back for good, however, chances are they will have had to overcome the problem of stagnation many times. In fact, the ability to cope with this problem in an ongoing way is one of the things that separates successful runners-- whether elites or recreational runners known for their ability to stay at or near personal best level for long periods-- from less successful runners, including those who abandon the sport by choice before they ever approach their full potential.

To cope with stagnation in training we need to first to understand that it is a syndrome with dual and mutually reinforcing physical and psychological components. It's not really necessary to know the order of causality here; it is enough to know that stagnation is experienced as a failure of the body to respond to training stimulae accompanied by a loss of enthusiasm for the training process. In cases where there is no obvious physical or medical reason for poor performance, stagnation in training is a vicious circle in which the body fails to overcompensate for the training stress and the athlete loses her will to subject herself to further racing or training, leading in turn to compromised workouts and an eventual degradation of accumulated physiological adaptations. Often, if an athlete persists in this state (or, more often, is required to persist in this state, due to team or other commitments) then actual physical injury will intervene.

Once we understand that our difficulties in training are at once physical and emotional/psychological, it becomes easier to overcome the problem of stagnation. If we assume that the problem is entirely physical, then our approach may be to stop or drastically reduce all training. Such an approach will often only exacerbate the psychological/emotional aspect of the problem, however, as it will, over time, lead to reduced fitness-- a depressing prospect for the otherwise highly motivated athlete. On the other hand, to treat the problem as entirely psychological/emotional risks not only pushing the athlete to the point of injury; it risks destroying his/her sense of athletic self-- a loss that could permanently undermine the athlete's self-belief, and thereby ability to face the rigours of training and competition in the future. In my many years of involvement in the sport, I have seen younger athletes, in particular, give up completely as result of both these misdiagnoses-- either because they were pushed beyond stagnation to the point of injury, or because their repeated stagnation-induced "training breaks" prevented them from gaining fitness year-to-year; or, because they became convinced, sometimes by coaches or parents, that their stagnation was a result of their own failure of will (that they "just didn't have it" mentally to stick with training and racing). And I've seen older athletes give up a sport they used to love for similar reasons.

Understanding the dual physical/psychological nature of the stagnation problem leads, I would argue, to some counter-intuitive solutions. As long-term successful athletes will often tell you, when it comes to stagnation, a change is often not only as good as a rest, but better, even if the change involves running-- or at least training-- more rather than less. My first lesson in over-coming training and racing stagnation came at the very end of my high school track career. After spending 10 months training more intensely than I ever had (or, amazingly, have since) without enjoying the results I felt I had earned, I rather abruptly lost my enthusiasm for the training process. And once I had lost the drive to train, my physical energy level correspondingly plunged until I became not not only unwilling but completely unable to complete my workouts as before. Physically tired and emotionally dispirited, I abandoned my final high school racing season without any real plan for my future in the sport. The day following my decision to stop racing, however, I was confronted with the problem of what to do next in the very simple form of the question: will I or won't I go for a run today? Having grown accustomed to training very long and hard,and with a strong sense that at some point my enthusiasm for hard training would return, I was simply unwilling to let go of all of my hard-won gains; yet, I knew I did not have the drive to proceed as before, particularly as I now had no immediate racing plans of any kind. I did ultimately choose to run that day, but, as it happened, entirely without a plan as to how far or how fast. This became my plan, or perhaps anti-plan, for the rest of that summer. Suddenly free from the pressure of double runs and 2-3 hard track session per week, my enthusiasm for the act of heading out the door to run returned, and within less than a month I was back to running twice a day, two or three times per week. Entirely spontaneously, I actually began to run nearly as much as I had before, and often just as hard, although entirely without structure or plan. By the end of that summer, I even found myself entering races, although road races and longer events-- not the kind I had been training for that spring. By the start of my university career that September, I was not only full of enthusiasm to train, I was in the best shape of my life-- now reaping, as I was, the fruits of both my early intense training and my supposed "break" from training. What I learned from this early experience is that it is not so much the intensity and volume of training that leads to stagnation; it is the lack of variety and the feeling of not being able to tackle the same kinds of training and racing stresses over and over again without relief. Beneath this malaise, I still retained a great appetite for the training process-- very soon after "quitting" I was, after all, running almost as much as I had before. And whatever physical manifestations of staleness and stagnation I had been experiencing feeling seemed to disappear almost as soon as I had varied the training stimulus and adjusted my outlook on the future.

Since that first experience with stagnation, and my spontaneous discovery of how to overcome it, I have been very conscious of the need to introduce a variety of training stimulae both within and between training cycles. And, I have been surprised at how little variety is sufficient to ward-off stagnation. The discovery that stagnation can be overcome by actually training harder, but differently, has been one of the main secrets to my longevity as a competitive athlete. True, as a master-age athlete, I now get many more injury-imposed training breaks that force variety into my program; but, as an athlete with still relatively few serious injuries, I still need to rely on mixing up my training stresses in order to keep things fresh. (Here in Canada, we get some help from the changing seasons too, as much as we dread our winter training!)

Here, then, are some of my simple but counter-intuitive tips for overcoming stagnation in your training-- counter-intuitive because they may involve training as much or more/harder than before:

1. Run slower and longer if you have been doing a lot of hard, highly regimented interval sessions, tempo runs and races.

2. Run shorter, faster, and with longer recoveries if you have been doing a lot of longer, slower running. (Doing 30-40 second hill repeats works well here.)

3. Run twice per day if you have been doing one single, longer session per day, or twice a day if you have been running singles.

4. Put away your watch or GPS for a while and run entirely as you feel in terms of both distance and effort.

5. Switch from intervals to fartlek, or hill fartlek (long, steady climbs with faster recovery descents), and from tempo runs to simple, unmeasured, out-slow and back-fast training runs.

6. Substitute a new training modality, such as water running or the elliptical machine for some of your runs. (This works even if you end up working more intensely on the new modality than you were working on your runs).

7. Change your training surface and/or your typical routes.

8. Run alone if you have been running with a partner, or vice-versa.

9. Cut back on your racing (once a month is best for masters athletes and 1-2 times per month for younger runners).

10. Plan to run a race or racing distance you have never tried before, or haven't done in a while (even a marathon, provided there aren't obvious physical reasons why you shouldn't).

In the end, if we love the sport enough to have been doing it for a few years or more, our enthusiasm will eventually come back. The trick is to make sure our bodies are ready and able to meet the challenge when our interest returns. Athletes who respond to every bout of stagnation by taking long periods of time off (i.e. a week or more) eventually confront and new and far more intractable problem in the form of a body that is weaker, sometimes heavier, and missing some of they gross adaptations required to run safely and somewhat comfortably-- e.g., strong feet and calves, which are the first things to go in our typically sedentary, shoe-wearing everyday lives. The same fate-- injury-- awaits the athlete who attempts to "tough out" a protracted training malaise. I would venture that much of the decline in performance we associate with aging has much more to do with the prolonged training breaks that over-30 runners tend to take, either due to injury or stagnation, than with age per se. I'm becoming more and more convinced that the most successful runners, whether open elite or masters, are those who have discovered the secret of maintaining their fitness through the use of simple training adaptations that enable them to retain fitness while working through the inevitable bouts of stagnation that punctuate their-- and all-- athletic lives.

Monday 8 June 2009

Risking Failure: Racing and Becoming

It is the end of the spring racing season and I am once again struck by the realization that our best laid plans as coaches and athletes end in failure (in an objective sense) just as often, and perhaps more so, than in triumph. Why, then, do we so often persist? Why do we set about planning another cycle of hard training while still waist deep in the ashes of our earlier construction? Are we simply deluded, or is there perhaps a deeper reason for this tendency to look constantly forward even-- or perhaps especially-- in the throes of despondency over our recent failures?

There are many short answers to this question: hope springs eternal in the human heart, and all of that; we learn and grow from our mistakes, which are only fully apparent in failure; some of us love the process of planning and preparing as much as the final execution, etc. All of these short answers, however, only hint at what I believe to the deeper, bigger reason for our persistence, and this answer speaks squarely to what I call the culture-creating possibilities inherent in competitive sport: we persist in the face of failure, I would argue, because to do so makes us more fully human. I would go even further, in fact, and say that we persist until we encounter failure-- we, in a sense, pursue failure-- because in doing so we realize our humanity more fully and completely. We are genuinely hurt by defeat and failure-- if we weren't it would mean that we did not really care; but, in risking it, and ultimately encountering and overcoming it, we realize our distinctness as a meaning-creating species.

When embarking on a training plan with a clear set of competitive goals in mind, we are always intuitively aware of the potential for failure. We do not operate in ignorance of this risk; we actually embrace it by setting our goals beyond anything we have achieved before, and by allowing ourselves to deeply desire those goals. This desiring of goals and concomitant courting of failure is what charges what is, in an inherent sense, a meaningless activity with meaning. Clearly, human beings have always run for some mundane, practically useful purpose-- from catching their food or escaping becoming food, to catching the bus-- and many still do run for purely external purposes-- namely, to "stay in shape" or to prolong life. Running is lifted out of this realm of practical necessity to become a form of culture-- a vehicle for the self-expression and self-actualization-- however, when it is approached as an end in itself, as it is when we do it simply to enjoy the feeling of movement (as children often do), or when we attempt to do it longer and faster than we have before, as we do when we train to compete. It is only in this latter instance, however, where we attempt to become more than we currently are, that running takes its full place alongside of other "cultural" activities. (Now, as we well know, the pursuit of running as a competitive sport can sometimes turn in back into an utilitarian activity, such as when it is enlisted in the pursuit of financial or political gain, or when the competition is taken over by scientists looking for gains by intervening directly at the cellular level; but, that is a subject for another installment.)

What, then, does the experience of failure among competitive runners tell us about the cultural possibilities of the sport? In short, failure is integral to the act of establishing goals and the investment of emotional energy and meaning in the pursuit of those goals-- the very things that open us up to real disappointment and even despair. And, in a way, failure awaits everyone who continues to set goals. Furthermore, it is only in the moment of failure that the cultural possibilities of competitive running are fully revealed. Failure reveals to us how much of ourselves we invested in the process and how completely we offered up our hearts and spirits for breaking. In failure, we also confront our limitations and learn to better except ourselves as we are, even as we strive to become a little more. Failure, if understood as integral to the process of striving to overcome, can make us deeper, wiser, more interesting, and thus more fully human. This is true, of course, of all meaningful human pursuits. In competitive running, however, failure tends to be uniquely clear, unambiguous and undeniable, as much as we might try to qualify it or soften it in the first instance (when you fail in running, they document it on a list!). When a collectivity fails the reasons are often very complex and the ultimate responsibility broadly diffused. Likewise when individual failure occurs in a more technologically mediated activity, such as in sports like cycling or motor racing, it can be more easily displaced onto others, such as technicians and equipment makers. When runners fail, on the other hand, their failure feels-- and, in a sense, really is-- uniquely their own, and the ensuing sense of weakness and inability is that much more acute. This deeper sense of personal failure and inability, however, only increases the cultural potential of competitive running-- its potential to encourage human growth and becoming.

These, in any case, were my reflections while attending the two major competitive events of the spring season for our group as a whole-- the Ottawa International Race Weekend and the Ontario high school track championships. These were also, of course, major events for many other coaches and athletes, so the opportunity to observe, as I have many times before, the colourful and poignant drama of triumph and failure was ample. Competitive success is always preferable to failure in the first instance, of course; it is what we plan and strive for. As I took in the usual array of ecstatic, celebratory, broken and tearful young athletes, however, I realized yet again how they represent two sides of a coin. Today's celebrants would inevitably find themselves in the camp of despair at some point, and the broken would go on to enjoy competitive success again at some other time and place. And all, if they continued the serious pursuit of the sport, would continue to become more fully and richly human simply by having had the temerity to plan and prepare, in the face of failure, to reach higher.

This, by the way, helped me understand why the friendships I have made through running have been so profound and lasting over the years-- far more so than any I've made through other channels. Competitive runners, if they have stuck with it long enough to have dreamed big and failed (and this, incidentally, includes runners who have actually made Olympic teams, broken national records, and been ranked high internationally), are actually richer, often wiser, and more interesting people than many you might meet. I attribute this more than anything else to the experience of having encountered their limitations through repeated failure. This, I think, is central to what makes serious runners what they are for always, and kindred spirits for all time, regardless of how many years it may have been since they trained or raced seriously. This may well be true of other people from some other fields of endeavour, but it's runners that I know best.

Monday 1 June 2009

Daniels Primer # 3: The Uses and Misuses of the VDOT Tables

Stepping away for a moment from the spring racing frenzy, I thought I'd offer another Jack Daniels primer-- this one on the uses and misuses of his revolutionary "VDOT" performance and workout tables.

Runners tend to find Daniels VDOT tables to be the most interesting part of his book, Daniels Running Formula because runners tend to like numbers-- in particular, ones by which they can begin to compare their own performances across different distances, and against those of others. But, what is a the real value of Daniels' famous tables, how were they developed, and how might they be used (or misused) in the training process?

The value of Daniels' VDOT tables (I'll leave it to interested readers to explore the precise origin of the name "VDOT", which is explained on p. 51 of the the second edition of the book) is that they enable an athlete and coach to more precisely regulate effort levels in workouts based on current fitness, so that the athlete may perform the optimal amount of work in a given session. In short, VDOT tables enable us to support or replace our existing, and usually less precise, terminology for describing effort levels-- terms like "easy", "hard", "comfortably quick", etc. Daniels developed the VDOT tables during the course of his lab research measuring oxygen consumption among trained runners at maximal and sub-maximal speeds. For each of his subjects, he determined the speed (velocity) traveled at maximum oxygen consumption (a vV02, as he labeled it). He also discovered that the average athlete could, under lab conditions, travel at this speed for 10-12 minutes. From here, he was able to measure how much an athlete would have to reduce his/her velocity in order to run for longer than 10-12mins. Daniels was then able to work backwards from actual race performances (since most athletes complete given distances within a fairly narrow range of time) to determine the approximate percentage of an athlete's maximum "aerobic speed" he/she would typically operate at in races of different distances, regardless of his/her actual max V02 relative to others. This enabled him to establish at set of real world training speeds (i.e. measured in seconds per km or mile)corresponding to an athlete's maximum effort as determined by his/her actual racing performances. It also enabled athletes and coaches to predict, with surprising accuracy, an athlete's probable performance at one distance from his/her proven performance at another (a big part of the allure of the tables for runners and coaches). Daniels' VDOT tables were revolutionary because they enabled coaches and runners to more precisely regulate training efforts without recourse to expensive lab tests to determine max V02 and running economy; whatever their actual laboratory determined levels, athletes could be reasonably certain over time that their race pace for distances of 3k to 5k (10-12mins) corresponded to their maximum aerobic effort (vV02, in Daniels' terms) and could set their various workout paces accordingly. Thus, armed with Daniels' VDOT tables and his(and others') research on the different physiological adaptations developed from training at difference percentages of maximum effort (from "easy" running to running at MV02), athletes and their coaches could more accurately determine the optimal paces for their various daily training efforts, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of going either to slow or (more likely) too fast in a given session.

Used properly, Daniels' VDOT tables are a huge boon to the training process. In enabling athletes to more precisely regulate training speeds based on actual current fitness-- rather than on, say, an athlete's personal bests, or on an athlete's goal performances-- the VDOT tables helped athlete and coach to set sustainable effort levels for training, thereby avoiding blown workouts, over-training, injury, and subsequent failure to improve. But what, then, are the possible misuses of the VDOT system?

As Daniels' himself points out, the VDOT measurement is only effective if the conditions under which a given performance was achieved closely approximate those of the average training environment. In other words, a performance achieved in cool and windless conditions will not be of much use in setting speeds for a workout to be done in hot and windy conditions. Here, the VDOT may be a reasonable guide, and is certainly better than nothing; but, if training conditions on the ground do not match the racing conditions in which a VDOT performance was achieved, strict adherence to VDOT speeds will lead in the long run to over-training and failure.

Another possible misuse of the VDOT system is to assume that all athletes should be able to perform every kind of workout according to their best VDOT racing performance. The VDOT is an excellent basis on which to set workout paces for more experienced and well trained athletes. I have found, however, that VDOT paces for longer sessions are often not consistently attainable for younger or more inexperienced athletes. Younger athletes in particular often find it fairly easy to work at their VDOT-prescribed paces for MVO2 pace or faster, but are often completely unable to do the corresponding paces for longer "threshold" or "tempo" sessions. In fact, I've found that the less experience and the lower the overall weekly training volume for an given athlete, the more unreliable are the VDOT paces for these longer sessions. Less experienced and/or lower volume runners often simply can't approach the prescribed speeds for these sessions. Sticking to the VDOT paces in these instances turns what should be a manageable session into a long and unduly burdensome weekly time trial.

Finally, it is generally not advisable to use speeds attained in workouts to predict racing performance (the "reverse VDOT" approach). Race performances are a great guide to proper workout efforts, but workout "performances" should be rarely if ever be used as a guide to future race performances. In other words, athletes should not assume that because they can complete a workout at VDOT level corresponding to a particular race performance that they are ready to race at that level. A particularly good workout may well be an indicator of a great performance to come, but things are rarely that simple. Oftentimes, athletes will feel they are able to handle their VDOT-prescribed workout paces without undue stress, and may be able to push well below these paces if called upon in a one-off session. The demands of workouts, however, are somewhat different from those of races, and many athletes are able to do things in workouts that they are not quite ready for in races. Likewise, some athletes find their prescribed VDOT paces quite difficult on a day-to-day basis, yet are able to routinely reproduce the corresponding performance in races. Simply put, some athletes train better than they race, and vice-versa.

To use the VDOT tables effectively, we have to bear in mind that they are only guides; and that, as such, they are not a substitute for the informed judgment of athlete and coach on the ground. We also need to understand that the VDOT tables are passive measures of current fitness and not guides for how to achieve a particular corresponding performance level. In other words, we don't attain a higher level of performance by attempting to train at the speeds corresponding to that VDOT. If we do this, the result is much more likely to be over-training and injury than better performance. The VDOT system is meant to help us determine the optimal speeds for training at our current level of fitness; improvement comes not from pushing beyond these speeds but from working consistently at them, and from increasing total training volume carefully over time. Thus, as Daniels is at pains to emphasize, we should not attempt to train at a new VDOT level until our race performances have confirmed our readiness to do so, or until our workouts have become very controlled and easy (a period typically between 3 and 6 weeks, according to Daniels).