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.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Project Me: Update # 1

You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can certainly refresh that dog's memory concerning the tricks he used to know but may have forgotten. The first and most important lesson any runner learns-- and that any veteran runner has had to repeatedly re-learn on his/her way to becoming a veteran-- is that stress without adequate recovery is simply stress, and not training. Training, we can never forget, is stress followed by adaptation, or physical overcompensation for said stress. Training entails introducing the body-- a conservative thing when it comes to the allocation of resources-- to a new condition, that of aerobic distress and glycogen depletion, in the hope and expectation that it will progressively morph itself into a system better able to cope with that new condition. Ordinarily, it will do just that, after a period of time that varies from individual to individual. And it will do it more readily when it is younger, and more readily equipped hormonally for growth and adaptation. When it is older, it can still be encouraged to allocate some resources for adaptation to training-induced stress, but it is more reluctant. Whether old or young, however, the body ranks the stresses to which it will respond, with those that most immediately threaten the well being of the organism coming first. Threats to the immediate health of the body-- typically those posed by inadequate nutrition, sleep, or psychological/emotional trauma-- trigger a primitive fight or flight response in the body, a central component of which is the release of cortisol, the "stress hormone". It is well known that the presence of high levels of cortisol in the body is associated with poor health and shortened lifespan (tellingly, the poor typically have higher average levels of cortisol than affluent).

Runners hoping to benefit from all their hard work, and particularly those of us who are older, ignore this reality at our peril. If we add the stress of training to an already stressful life situation-- one in which we are already hormonally compromised-- we can expect poor results, both in terms of our training and overall quality of life. While no one can completely eliminate the typical cortisol-spiking stresses of modern life, runners can learn not to add to them by repeatedly making the mistake of eating poorly and not sleeping enough, or unnecessarily putting themselves into psychologically stressful situations (did you REALLY need to freak out at that guy who cut you off on the way to work this morning?). We can also learn when these sorts of stresses are running abnormally high, and adjust our training stress accordingly. In fact, if we're really attuned to our level of life stress, we can actually use our running to help us reduce its negative effects. A certain amount of easy aerobic running can actually help reduce cortisol levels and raise dopamine (the "pleasure" hormone) in stressed people. If we're realistic enough in our assessment of how our life is going, and nimble enough in adjusting our level of training stress accordingly, we can not only get through periodic difficulties more successfully, we can hang onto more of our hard won training adaptations-- which, for serious runners, it itself a cause for greater happiness.

As for yours truly, I made my decision to embark on a new/old and more ambitious training regime at the very beginning of what I knew would be-- because it always IS-- my busiest and most stressful time of year (although, in my defense, the fall is also the best time of year weather-wise to train long and hard). Add to this some unexpected personal stress and the entirely predictable result was that I caught a virus late in September that, because I could not reduce my life-stress levels, and would not reduce my training stress levels, progressed to a bacterial infection (my old nemesis, the sinus infection, with which I was plagued all last winter and early spring). The upshot in terms of race results what that I ran a personal worst over 5k in Syracuse (15:59 on the fastest course in the east), followed by a couple of better but hardly inspiring X-C outings in October and this past weekend on the home course in Kingston. Granted, I got a little older over the past few months too, but not enough to justify losing 30+ seconds over 5k since late June! I'm still hoping for a good result in my final couple of races of the season, but I have relearned a lesson I should never have forgotten-- live well, train well, race well. I'm not ready to fire my coach just yet, but we'll be having a serious end of season chat! I have no plans to back off on my training, but will readjust my heaviest loads to the times of year (early spring to late summer) when I anticipate the lowest levels of overall stress-- a moving target, to be sure, but that's life itself!

Stay tuned for the P-K Performances of the Month for September and October (i.e. after I have had time to actually review results!).