Thursday 27 December 2012

How We Get Ahead in Running: The Meaning of "Consistency"

You've heard it and read it in the running magazines dozens of times before: the key to getting to the next level in the sport, whether you're young or old, is to train consistently over a long period of time. We know this means, among other things, that doing a moderate amount of running for a few months beats doing a few prodigious bouts of training, followed by little or no running at all (sometimes due to injury or illness, but also due simply to loss of interest in the aftermath of the binge itself). We also know that the longer we can go without significant down time-- several years, if possible-- the better we'll get. My experience as both athlete and coach, however, has taught me that things are not quite so simple. The real truth, once again, resides in the details-- details that are discernible only through closer inspection of what successful athletes actually do, and have done for years. For instance, while it's true that many successful athletes, myself included, have had very low rates of injury over long stretches of their careers, it is also the case that many equally successful athletes have suffered more than one setback lasting 2-4 months in the span of a few years during their careers. And while many of us have kept our total weekly training volumes within a fairly narrow band over a decade or more, with the most successful tending to do slightly more volume on average from one year to the next, plenty of top runner's diaries record quite large fluctuations within these steadily increasing yearly averages. What does this seemingly conflicting evidence tell us about the meaning of "long term consistency" as it relates to training for distance running?

The very short answer is that consistency simply means not giving up (of which more below)! It is possible to have a successful career in this sport on the basis of both a very uniform pattern of training from week to week and year to year, and a pattern characterized by wide fluctuations in total training load and intensity, either by design, or as a result of injury and other setbacks. Where possible, uniformity and careful incrementality is always to be preferred to its opposite, at least in the long term. The trouble is, it is rarely possible, because the variables upon which it depends are often very difficult to control. The trained body can be capricious and therefore hard to read; and, in many places in the world, the seasonal weather can be distinctly uncooperative. All runners must therefore deal to one degree or another with shocks and interruptions to their carefully plotted plans, and some runners must deal with regular and multiple such disturbances. Common sense may dictate that, in the face of challenges to consistency, coaches and athletes must double-down on their attempts at stabilizing the overall training plan. There may be something to be said, however, for accepting, and even attempting to exploit, the pattern of short term inconsistency imposed by life's tribulations.

I have always intuited that it is sometimes best to "strike while the iron is hot" when formulating a training plan-- to, in other words, increase volume and/or intensity when it's obvious that my or my athlete's response to the stimulus is robust. This intuition coalesced into an actual insight the other day during a post-workout chat with a particularly fast-improving young athlete. His just completed workout had been significantly faster at the same perceived effort than a similar session only two weeks earlier. When he suggested that he must have simply pushed a little harder this week-- because he "couldn't actually be any fitter in only two weeks"-- I began to think a little harder about my own experience. When I was improving (and it's been many years since I have actually improved), how did it typically happen? My recollection-- backed up by my old training logs-- indeed showed that, when I improved, it tended to be in sudden bursts of 6-8 weeks, followed by longer periods of relative stasis. There were definitely times when I really did get fitter and faster than I had ever been in a period of just a couple of weeks, often following a period of longer and more intense training than usual. My pattern over many years was therefore not linear at all. It tended to be more a matter of improving in short bursts, then simply hanging onto those gains until the next burst. It was the hanging onto established gains-- the never giving up part-- that really distinguished my career as a whole.

Then I stumbled upon the following post from Alex's Hutchinson's consistently outstanding blog on exercise science in which he reviewed a piece of research on the possible benefits of "killer training weeks"-- the kind typically done during university and club training camps. This caused me to recall the many times I had seen and heard of athletes suddenly reaching new levels of performance in the wake of breakthrough, one-day efforts in half-marathons and marathons (although much more commonly half marathons). Perhaps there really was something to be said for abandoning routine-- and even common sense-- once in a while in pursuit of that big breakthrough!

But then my more prudent, analytical side intervened and offered some needed balance. If we could always know with certainty in every case when the best odds of successfully pushing the envelope in training would occur, then the problem would be simple. Absent such information, however, the idea of introducing "super-weeks" of training into a typical routine seemed almost always ill-advised, and more likely to end in injury and over-stimulation than in a performance breakthrough. A more sensible use of the above insight would seem to be to recognize that improvement typically does happen unevenly, and to discover the points in a individual athlete's various cycles (seasonal, yearly, and career) when such breakthroughs were most likely to occur. Planning heavier (perhaps even much heavier) training during these times might prove beneficial, provided the full understanding and commitment of the athlete could be enlisted (a crucial variable).

Finally-- and here we return to the importance of simply not giving up-- we need to aware that periods of much heavier than normal training do not always produce the intended and desired result, even when very carefully planned. In fact, sometimes they result in the opposite-- injury, illness, and loss of performance. In successful athletes who have endured multiple setbacks related to injury and illness during their careers, we notice a couple of distinctive things. These kinds of athletes-- and here 2:07 marathoner Dathan Ritzenheim of the US is perhaps history's best example-- are typically very diligent and creative cross-trainers who rarely miss a beat when misfortune strikes. Successful but oft-injured athletes are also typically very good at learning from their mistakes. They will often adjust or completely overhaul their approach to training in the aftermath of an injury or period of poor performance. Very successful athletes are therefore not always "consistent" as much as simply determined! And they often learn to use the pattern of "inconsistency" that nature, fortune, or circumstance imposes on them in very productive ways. Years ago, master coach Jack Daniels discovered this fact inadvertently when he conducted follow-up physiological testing on a group of elites he had studied while at their career peaks. To his surprise, he found that those who had suffered the greatest number of setbacks, due to injury or whatever, tended to have retained the greatest percentage of their peak-age fitness. Whatever the reason (Daniels thought perhaps some combination of the down time from training and the extra motivation that might have come from feeling like they had never trained well enough to realize their full potential), these athletes managed to turn a life time of short term "inconsistency" in training into consistently high long term fitness. There are lessons here for a all of us, young and old.

Friday 14 December 2012

A Riddle in a Mystery Inside Spandex

This, with apologies to Sir Winston Churchill, is an apt description of the older body when it comes to matching training with race performance. Putting it together on race day is the runner's greatest challenge, but why is it often so much more tricky for older athletes? Converting the hard work of training into satisfying race results can be just as challenging for teenaged runners, but this is often due to simple inexperience-- the one thing that typically does not figure in the case of masters runners. Very young and older athletes do share a couple of other things in common-- a body that is changing steadily, but often in fits and starts, and a susceptibility to what we might call "lifestyle lapses"-- but there are some specific reasons why masters runners have a harder time putting it together when they want to.

While the bodies of younger and older runners may respond to the training stimulus in unpredictable ways, due to changes in hormone levels and basic physical structures, the changes that younger runners undergo are typically supportive of training adaptation, at least in the medium term. The energy lost and additional injury risks incurred during growth spurts, for instance, can sometimes lead to flat performance; but, when managed correctly, becoming a little bigger and stronger usually ends up supporting improved performance, all other things being equal. Younger runners will sometimes take longer to show improvement relative to their increased training loads, and will sometimes see apparently unexplained, one-off collapses in performance. Their troubles rarely last longer than a few weeks, however, during which time they rarely go completely into reverse, at least not in the absence of viral illness or iron deficiency. And when younger runners eventually do level out, they often enjoy massive performance improvements as a direct result of the changes their bodies have undergone. In contrast, the changes that the bodies of older runners will typically manifest are, of course, not always supportive of increased performance. Masters runners must deal with sometime sudden bodily changes (such as periodic "tectonic structural shifts", as I called them in a earlier post)that, while not the end of the world as far as performance goes, can lead to sudden and pretty dramatic loss of performance that may last longer than a few weeks. And these changes are often highly idiosyncratic in older runners, whose bodies often seem to operate according to their own rules at times (whereas all younger, growing bodies tend to behave according to a loose script). This is likely because the bodies of older runners, like those of older people in general, have registered effects from a far broader range of biographically specific influences over a much longer period of time than those of younger runners, which are all responding to one degree or another to the same sets of hormonal signals. The bodies of older runners, in other words, are etched in very particular ways by their particular life experiences, making each one its own study.

There are differences in the way that poor lifestyle choices may affect the performances of younger and older runners too. Although they do them for very different reasons, both very young and older runners will often suffer lapses in proper routine that can have very negative short term effects on performance. Younger runners will go on nutritionally dubious binges, stay up all night at "sleepovers", or spend a hot day at the beach with friends without drinking any water in the days before a race. Older runners will sometimes spend a day or two doing unexpectedly strenuous yard work, renovating the house, or socializing late into the night with friends on the eve of a race. One group will do it out of lack of forethought, inexperience, or just the desire to have it all, while the other will do it as a result of "adult responsibilities". Neither, after all, are professional athletes with dire stakes involved (although the risks that some top runners have taken before races might surprise some people). Once again, however, sudden changes in daily routine usually hit older runners far harder and more unpredictably than they do younger ones, who will often get away with simply not improving, rather than taking a step backwards or getting injured. For reasons that remain something of a mystery, older runners can sometimes hit lifetime bests in spite of serious breaches in their race week routine-- breaches that ought to completely undermine race performance-- while other times fall apart abjectly after a single, minor break in their race week routine. This often absurd range of variability sometimes temps older runners to take more take more pre-race risks instead of fewer, even when they have a choice in the matter.

But the deeper reason why the master's body is more unpredictable on race day has to do, I think, with the social and psychological aspects of being older; in particular, it is the typical adult experience of life as "stressful" that produces the wide range of response to training stimuli that in turn cause unpredictable race performance. It is "stress", after all, that impairs recovery--and therefore adaptation to training-- most profoundly.

Most adult runners, and masters runners in particular, like most mature people, experience life as an ever widening circle of responsibilities demanding to be met. Masters athletes, therefore, typically spend much more time than younger athletes do worrying about, and attempting to meet, the many demands (usually real but sometimes only perceived) on their time and emotional energy. In order to build running into their lives, masters athletes frequently have to plan their races weeks or months in advance in order to work around work and family commitments (and one can add to this the need to enter races sometimes months in advance simply in order to get a spot on the line— one of the few downsides of running’s exploding popularity). While younger athletes also experience stress, they seem much better able to compartmentalize it; in younger athletes, outside pressures tend not to coalesce into a kind of permanent condition, as they often do with older runners. In the developed world at least, a condition of permanent stress and worry—a state of constantly managing for the future—is a badge of adult maturity. It is the fluctuation of this constant current of life stress that, I think, more than pure physiological differences (if there can be such a thing), explains the unpredictability of masters race performances as compared with those of young and peak-age athletes. Being more or less constantly under “stress”, older athletes are often not aware when they are particularly subject to it, and therefore likely to race poorly, or somewhat freer of it, and therefore likely to race very well.

Absent some kind of mass cultural sea-change (like an embrace of “minimalist” living), the experience of adulthood as perpetually “stressful” in our part of the world is not likely change any time soon. To mitigate the effects of life stress on race performance for masters athletes, I therefore offer the following suggestions:

1.Never attempt to “train through” races. Masters athletes should always taper to race, which may mean not racing as often as younger athletes.

2.Never attempt to race if your training is not going well. Racing tends to dramatically expose physical weakness, and the effect is magnified in older runners, who seem less able than younger athletes to turn a potentially disastrous performance into a decent one.

3.Don’t attempt to compete while particularly distracted, such as on vacation with family or friends. To race well, masters athletes need almost complete focus on the task.

4.Recognize and except that, for reasons that may not be entirely clear to you, there are times of year when you seem more liable to race well. Plan to race often during those times of year and very little at other times.

5.Go easy on the marathons. Racing and recovering from marathons is an epic physical and psychological ordeal for athletes of any age. For masters athletes, who often have to train for, race, and recover from them without missing a beat in their family and work lives, too many marathons can eventually destroy the ability to race well at shorter distances during the rest of the year (which, along with taking the fun out of running, will also eventually make them worse marathoners).