Tuesday 25 May 2010

Queen's No Longer Quiesent; its Quest for Quality No Longer Quixotic?

Those with the patience to read my long opening post in this blog-- the one in which I detail my own athletic genesis, and much else besides-- will know that I am a graduate of Queen's University here in Kingston. And some of you will have read, or will perhaps have already known, that the Queen's men managed to win 3 national team titles in 5 years during and just before my era-- a time in which there was probably greater quality and depth of performance than today, and in which the competition was far more balanced between schools. And whether or not you have ever seen this blog before, you will likely know that Queen's has not really come close to a national title on the men's or women's side in the decades since, in spite of having had a few very notable individual performances over the years. With my recent assumption of head coaching duties for men's and women's cross country and distance track (effective just last week), I plan to take my shot at remedying this situation, as challenging at it will be to make any headway against the juggernaut that is the U of Guelph/Speed River-- a program that has become its own very effective athlete recruitment campaign.

Without speculating on the underlying reasons, it is a fact that, in the decades since a Queen's team last bestrode a national podium, it has fairly consistently failed in two areas that most determine success in university distance running: Athlete recruitment, and performance delivery in championship meets. Teams that are able to recruit more top high-schoolers can often win in spite of sub-par championship race execution; and teams that cannot, for whatever reason, attract top recruits can sometimes still surprise on race day, if they are particularly well prepared; but, teams that can for one reason or another neither recruit their share of top talent nor consistently execute to the best of their ability on race day are doomed to ignominy.

As the best university sports programs repeatedly demonstrate, championship success tends to be self-replicating. Without a draft system to balance the distribution of talent from year to year, teams that experience a brief period of success, and who have recruiters who can convince serious young athletes that this success has been the result not simply of luck but of good programming (and often it is initially a matter of both) can begin to build dynasties. In the U.S., money for scholarships can be a significant driver of success; but, even here, there are many examples of winning programs that started with relatively few resources. In Canada, where tuition is generally much lower, and where scholarship amounts are regulated, and hedged by fairly stringent academic requirements, up-front money of this kind is not as nearly as significant a driver of program success. When it comes to fixed resources, things like good athletic facilities, including congenial environs for easy running, can also make a difference. But here, the minimum threshold is not difficult to reach, and universities with the best facilities and training venues by no means consistently best those with merely adequate training and competition amenities. Another important variable is the minimum academic admission standard at a given university. In the NCAA, it is a general rule that the higher the admission standard the less successful the athletic programs. This is attributable to the simple fact that, all other things being equal, a higher academic standard effectively limits the pool of potential top athletic recruits. It is a fact, however, that high academic standards are a greater barrier to recruitment in some sports than in others-- and distance running is one sport in which, for a whole host of sociological (and perhaps psychological) reasons, athletic and academic success are more often associated. (As I often point out to people, the winning teams during my era at Queen's were made up of some of the school's top academic performers-- and this at a university that, then as now, boasts the highest admission standards in the nation. And to this we can add the examples of the women's cross country and track programs at Ivy League's Princeton and Columbia Universities, or Stanford's men's and women's programs, which have routinely produced top 10 teams in Division I championships over the years).

What, then, is the secret of long term post-secondary sports success when the above variables are correctly weighted?

In distance running, which is not a skills-driven discipline, but rather sport in which the development of gross physiological capacities over a period of months and years is the secret of success, the ability of coaches and other recruiters to identify athletes with the right basic attributes, to persuade such athletes to invest some of their prime developmental years in a particular training environment, and to follow through by creating a year-round training program that encourages that development, are the keys to long term success. And, of these variables, the one that is indispensable for long term success is the final one. A training program that is grounded in sound principles, and which has had time to prove itself in practice, will tend to make talent identification and recruitment somewhat redundant, as the best talent will tend to choose the program without much inducement. There are, of course, a few other significant intangibles-- such as the personal agreeableness of the coaching staff, which can affect the willingness of the average athlete to invest in a given training program; but, even here, the soundness of the program will tend to win out in the end, even when athletes are not inclined to befriend the coach (although basic fairness and reasonableness are, of course, great values in themselves).

As the person now directly in charge of both athlete recruitment and program development at Queen's, my aim is to trade rather shamelessly on my own long term success in the sport (going back, in fact, to my membership on two of Queen's three olden times championship teams) as a means of convincing academically serious, Canada-bound high school distance stars to come to the university. Many, but not all, of the most successful NCAA programs are headed by former star athletes, and often alumni. Such coaches are often favoured because they have knowledge not only of the requirements of success in the system as a whole, but of the attributes of the school in question, along with an established profile within the system and among alumni (who, as the mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and neighbours of potential recruits, can be very important players within the system.) If these former stars-turned-coach also happen to have the wherewithal to create sound training programs, the result is almost always competitive success. And, of course, I am convinced that my years of almost total, full time immersion in the sport have given me the requisites to develop a successful training program. In any case, I very excited about putting my knowledge and experience to the test within the unique constraints of the Canadian Inter-university System. Since I have the full support of the Queen's Athletics admin in my quest, the immediate challenge will be to introduce myself to eligible recruits, their coaches and families, make them aware of my record in the sport, and to convince them that they might have a great athletic future at a Canadian university other than Guelph! The program at the U of G under Head Coach Dave Scott-Thomas (once, briefly, the coach at Queen's)-- fusing as it has the university team with a senior elite club with a proven record of putting athletes at the top of the Canadian rankings and onto World Championship and Olympic teams-- currently resides on a level of its own in Canada, both because of its great quality, and because of the declining calibre of most other programs in the system. Successfully challenging the U of G-- if, indeed, a successful challenge is even possible within the foreseeable future-- will require both the faith of few talented high school athletes and a training program that hits the ground running, if you'll pardon the pun. Making a reality of this will be, for me, a difficult but not a daunting task; for, as lifelong lover of running and of those who, like me, have a passion to do it seriously, I can think of no more pleasurable challenge!

If you are a supporter of P-K and know of an athlete who may be interested in becoming part of what I hope will the beginning of an exciting new era for Queen's X-C and distance track over the next 4-5 years, do not hesitate to contact me at either steve@physi-kultrunning.com or qxc@queensu.ca Thanks to the excellent work of the outgoing coaching staff last season, I'm lucky to have a good core of runners, to which I have already managed to add a couple of very strong candidates from the junior P-K group, making it possible to begin moving up the ranks as early as this season. And, in the next 3-4 season, who knows!

Thursday 6 May 2010

Race Week Workouts and P-K April POM

Race Week Workouts: Striking the Correct Balance

At this time of year, every week is a "race week" for one or more of the athletes in my group, whether it's an elite like Dylan or Emily prepping for a road race, or a group of high- schoolers getting ready to hit the track for an early season double, or even triple, race weekend. As with the question of warm-ups, and all other immediate pre-race concerns, from diet to bathroom stops, runners are inclined to fret about their race-week workouts. And they have reason to fret; much is at stake in getting these final harder efforts right, and there are some distinctly different approaches to the problem circulating in the running world.

The long-standing, conventional approach to race-week workouts is to make them shorter and faster as compared to regular sessions. High school runners, for instance, are typically instructed to run repetitions of 400m or less at faster than their expected race pace-- often much faster (and, whether high school athletes are instructed to go faster or not, they will tend to do so during race week sessions if presented with the opportunity, simply because of nervous energy, and desire to reassure themselves that they are ready to go). With this approach, it is not unusual to have athletes training at high speeds as close a 48 hours from race time, based on the notion that faster running immediately preceding a race with "sharpen" the athlete for the impending race effort.

A similar approach is to simply scale down the training week in general, including the final workouts, but maintain the same basic workout content and pace. Following this approach, an athlete who typically runs, say, 6x1k @MV02 pace, would do 4x 1k during race week.

A third approach, and the one I favour, involves running the final pre-race workouts at a pace slower than expected race pace for distances below Half Marathon (and approximately equal to HM race pace). As with so many things, I have adjusted my practice on this question in response to the work of emeritus coach Jack Daniels, who recommends threshold pace running, or "cruise intervals" (bouts of threshold pace running with very short recoveries) as final pre-race sessions.

As a younger athlete, I followed the standard practice of running shorter and faster workouts during race weeks, and for the usual reasons-- as a way to, I hoped, make my race paces feel relatively easy, and in order to convince myself that I was ready to run at top speed in the upcoming race ("pulling the carrots up to see if they are ripe", as friend, long time rival, and 2 time Olympian Bruce Deacon once put it to me). Using this approach as a self-coached athlete, I eventually began to notice that I often felt much better in my workouts both immediately before and immediately following my races than I did in the races themselves. It was as though I'd been peaking for my pre-race workouts, which were low stress, and short enough to really hammer through, "resting" in the races themselves, because of being a little to tired to reproduce my pre-race workout efforts, and then recovering in the day or so that followed, leaving me feeling good again for the next session. This pattern didn't always occur, but it happened enough, both to me and to the others athletes I knew, that I began to wonder if there was perhaps another way to approach race-week workouts-- a way to train immediately before racing in such a way as to produce a positive stimulus without risking stealing from my race-day performance.

My first innovation was to lengthen the work-bouts and shorten the recoveries during pre-race sessions, so that I would simply not be able to run much, if at all, below race pace. Second, I began to allow much more time between the final workout and the race, although without changing the volume of easy running much in the final days of before the race. The most I would allow myself by way of faster running during, say, the final 3 days before a race effort was a few strides at approximately 1500 race pace. Finally, upon discovering Daniels, I opted for the approach of doing only threshold pace running-- bouts of 4 to 25mins of running at approximately half-marathon race pace-- in the 3-5 days preceding a race.

Daniels approach to pre-race workouts grows directly out of his approach to training in general, in which the faster and more intense phases of training are largely completed before the competition phase begins. Daniels' approach is rooted in the discovery that the benefits of faster and more intense training are longer lasting than we often imagine, and can be maintained during the competition phase using relatively little faster, intense running, apart from races themselves. Following Daniels, I reasoned that, since there was probably little to be gained by doing harder, faster sessions during race week, and much to be potentially lost from doing so, it was much better to ease up on the speed, yet still train in a zone and at a level of volume known to produce physiological benefits, and that allowed athletes to feel they had worked hard and had not lost fitness as they reduced training volume and intensity in preparation to race. Practical experimentation was to bear out my reasoning, and I was very soon a much more consistent racer at all distances (consistent, that is, in the sense of racing up to the level of my current fitness, whatever that may have been at any given time). And a word about the theory of "sharpening" behind the practice of running very fast in anticipation of racing: In most middle and long distance races, the top speeds attained, even in the midst of a furious last ditch sprint, are usually well below an athlete's top speed while fresh. The world record for 1500m, for instance, breaks down to 56 secs per 400m-- a speed that top middle distance runners can manage very comfortably for distances under about 700m. And a very fast finishing sprint in a 1500m might be 24-25 seconds for the final 200m-- again, a speed that most top middle distance runners can hit with relative ease. What is required to run a 1500m well is therefore not "sharpness" but the aerobic power and efficiency to run at very fast but still sub-maximal running speeds for periods of 3 to 8 minutes. Managing this requires having done a great deal of the necessary hard aerobic training well in advance of the competition phase, and being relatively free of the local muscle fatigue associated with this kind of running. In any case, very fast running in the days preceding a middle distance race is likely to produce little direct physiological benefit during the race, and at least some risk of unwanted local muscle fatigue, should anything occur that might impair the recovery process (e.g. a poor night's sleep or two, or some unanticipated emotional stress). Avoiding faster running, and allowing the trained muscles to recover the explosive power than is lost through high volume aerobic training is more likely to improve race speed-- at least the kind of speed entailed in middle distance racing-- than running short distances at or below race race. In general, athletes need to be confident that the main work has been done once the race week arrives; and, athletes just beginning what they hope will be a long season of racing need to realize that most of their so-called "sharpening" will come from their early races themselves-- racing being, of course, a highly specific form of training.

These days, a very typical pre-race session I like to perform, and have my athletes perform, as a final pre-race session is: 4x4mins @ tempo pace with a 60second easy jog recovery. I also favour a straight 20mins of tempo running, with the standard 15-20mins warm-up/down. And, lately, I've become quite fond of the shorter interval-pace (3k-5k race pace) fartlek as a pre-race session. A workout such as 10-12x 40 seconds @ interval pace with 40 secs recovery @ easy run or marathon pace produces an overall pace that is very close to tempo pace, while including a small amount of faster running (but never too fast, because the recoveries are short and active enough to prevent this). These kinds of sessions are easy to complete, highly effective as a means of preserving gains made during the heavy building phases, and testing enough, albeit in a safe way, to reassure the athlete that he/she is still in good shape.

P-K POM for April:

P-Kers made this month a very difficult one from which to select a top performance, and because of a surfeit rather than a dearth of good candidates. The leading nominees come from the National HM championships in Montreal nearly 4 weeks ago-- those of Emily Tallen, Rejean Chiasson, and Christian Mercier-- but a couple of additional POM-worthy results were produced in the wind-swept Kingston Race Weekend 5k, held on the final Sunday of the month. Notable was Ben Burr's 40 second personal best (17:23)on a day when others were routinely running 30+ seconds slower than normal, and 51 year old Myra Levac's 20:36 result-- a time that would no doubt have put her close to the 20 minute barrier she's been threatening to crack for a while now. (Someone of Myra's diminutive stature would certainly have had a harder time bucking those 50kph winds along the lake shore that day!) Finally, Colin Fewer of St. John's NFLD stunned me with a new personal best (by seven seconds, to 30:42) over 10k at the Times-Colonist race in Victoria. This may seem less than stunning until one considers that Colin was forced to spend all but 4 weeks of the winter x-training on the elliptical machine! He then followed up the next weekend with a near personal best of 1:07:54 in the Vancouver HM. (Moral of the story: Trust your elliptical training!).

After much deliberation, however, I'm giving POM honours for April to Christian Mercier for his outstanding new HM personal best of 1:08:30, his third great run in as many tries since joining the group. And those of you who read the last installment of the blog will recall that he ran this time after falling hard in the final 50m of the race. While new to P-K, Chris is not a rookie racer, and has trained relatively hard for a number of years. To have done the requisite work during a typical Quebec City winter, and to have had the confidence to set a pace that would end up carving some 80 seconds from his personal best, and on a challenging day, is a tough act to beat. That I have chosen this performance over Emily's first national senior championship-- one that followed a very difficult patch of racing for her-- should indicate what I think of it.

May POM-worth results are already showing up, lead by Rick Minichiello's massive 2 mins 18 second personal best masters win over 10k at the Sporting Life race in Toronto (a downhill course, but on a day that did not produce any torrid times among the elites up front, suggesting that the weather may have negated the usual 30-40 second downhill dividend at least a little). Other great results are likely to follow as P-Kers take to the streets in Vancouver (this weekend at the Sun Run), Ottawa (last weekend in May), and various other locales across the country.