A Quora member recently asked this deceptively simple question, “what is a marathon?”. Just what constitutes “a marathon” is a source of confusion for many runners new to the sport as well as for people not involved in the sport. Below is my attempt to explain the issues and hopefully resolve the confusion. Enjoy!
Within the sport of Track & Field (Athletics for all you non-Americans) a marathon is a foot race of the standard distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. The story behind the odd distance has to do with the 1908 Olympic marathon finish line placement, which made the course come out to that distance. The then governing body of the sport later adopted this distance for all marathons and it has been so since. Had the Games not been moved to London for 1908, the marathon distance probably would have eventually been standardized at 40k or 25 miles, or possibly left as it was for each race to determine.
But the confusion over ‘what is a marathon’ also stems from the fact that the word marathon, like many words, has more than one definition. We runners and track fans cringe when someone says they ran a “5k marathon”; no, you ran a 5k, not a marathon. However, one of the definitions of ‘marathon’, that long predates the adoption of the official marathon distance in Track & Field, is simply “any long distance running race”. Of course there are other uses of the word ‘marathon’ which are used for any event that requires prolonged endurance of one kind or another, such as a dance marathon, a sales marathon, or even a ‘marathon meeting’ (one that drags on for hours, or seems to).
One could therefore argue that technically, as purely a matter of grammar, a “5k marathon” is not incorrect. But of course since it is a running event, it is incorrect in that context. Personally, while I find it cringe worthy, I try to understand that the person saying it may be a new runner, so any correction should be gentle and constructive rather than of the “OMG, how dumb are you?” variety. We can’t expect people outside of – or brand new to – any field of endeavor to know its nomenclature and culture.
From what I have witnessed, actual race directors using terms like “10k marathon” to describe a race is more common in some parts of the world than others. I could be wrong, but this seems to be a fairly common practice in some Asian countries. In the US, you really only see it used by people putting on a race if they are having a charity fundraiser “5k Marathon”. Most serious runners know to stay away from these events, since they are probably not being conducted by someone who knows much about running as a sport, so there are often numerous problems (e.g., improperly marked and/or measured course, untrained volunteers, no traffic control, incorrect results, etc.)
I’m not sure if my answer directly relates to the reason the question was asked, but the subject comes up often enough that I hope my response is instructive to others who may be confused about the use of the word marathon.
I love superhero movies, but in order to enjoy them I have to suspend disbelief and stop being a scientist for a couple of hours, since most of what you see defies the laws of physics and well established physiological principles.
What the Ol’ Cap did was a physiological impossibility outside of the superhero movie universe. The runner would be going about world class 100m sprint speed (26 mph). That pace relies on energy primarily from phosphocreatine – essentially a “rocket fuel” with about 6 seconds “burn time” before it is depleted – plus energy liberated via anaerobic (without oxygen) processes. The longer the event, the more the ratio turns from anaerobic to aerobic energy sources. One simply can’t use aerobic metabolism to run 26 mph for virtually any length of time, let alone 30 minutes.
There are interesting questions like this in exercise physiology meant to spur investigation and discussion of the limits of human performance. For decades people have tried to come up with the ‘absolute limit’ for a given event, and so far they have been eventually proved wrong. Long ago there was the sub-4 minute mile barrier, but as we got into, say, the 1930s it was becoming obvious to most people that it was humanly possible to run that fast and it was just a matter of time. (Roger Bannister ran under 4 in 1954 – after about a 10 year period of a few people getting close, like 4:01 – 4:02.)
Later there were calculations that no man could go faster than (I’m working from memory here so not an exact figure) ~ 3:50-something, until that was broken. The current world record, set in 1999, is held by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj at 3:43.13. Of course we can say with certainty that no human will run a mile in 1 minute, or 2 minutes, or … well, we just don’t know for sure other than there is obviously a limit. El Guerrouj also holds the the 1500m WR of 3:26, which equates to about a mile of …. 3:43. So is the limit 3:43? Probably not; even though that record has stood for 17 years, it always seems someone could go 1/10 second faster, or at least 1/100. Is a sub 3:40 possible? I wouldn’t bet against it.
What is the fastest a human could run 13 miles? We don’t know (the world record for the half marathon – 13.11 miles – is 58:23) but it certainly isn’t anywhere close to 30 minutes. A 30 minute half marathon would be run at an average pace of 2:17 per mile, and equates to a 2:05 mile in quality.
That’s another of an infinite number of training questions for which the answer is “it depends”.
What does it depend on? (1) It depends on your current level of fitness; (2) it depends on what the distance of the ultra will be, (3) it depends on what type of course it will be run on (flat road, flat trail, hilly road or trail, mountain, high elevation, etc).
By definition, an ultramarathon is any distance longer than a standard 26.2 mile marathon, but in practical terms 50K is usually considered the standard entry level distance. Training for a 50K (31 miles) is quite a different proposition from training for a 100 mile or longer ultra. I highly discourage anyone from jumping into a 100 mile or longer race as their first ultra. (Occasionally an overly enthusiastic but sedentary sort will decide a “couch to ultramarathon” plan is a good idea; it isn’t, in a drunken “hey, Bubba, watch me jump off the barn into the kiddie pool!” kind of way.)
I’m going to assume you are the smart sort and aren’t planning to run anything longer than a 50K as your first ultra (or jump off the barn), since that is most common and makes the most sense. It allows you get a feel for the logistics (hydration, eating, footwear and other gear) and the ethos and unspoken rules of the ultra community without spending two days in the woods fooling with broken headlamps, nausea, blisters, hallucinations, and other super fun things.
I’m also going to assume you have run a few marathons and/or have been regularly running at least 30 -40 miles per week for most weeks of the last few years (i.e., you are in good shape to start with, and could finish a marathon distance run right now or with minimal further training).
I will further assume you know that your best bet for a pleasant first 50K will be to find a race that is not on super technical trails (bad footing and such) and not run in the mountains at high elevation. (I’ve only run a handful of ultras, mostly 50Ks, with a fairly flat Florida trail result of 5:15, and a mountain race in New Mexico all above 9000 ft altitude, with a climb up to 11,300 ft, in well over 8 hours. The latter was much tougher than a 50 Mile run I did in Florida (but with a bit less sand in my shoes). It was a great adventure, but I had a handful of longer races – and lots of time running mountain trails – under my belt before I did that one. (I was ill and injured the previous year and dropped out half way while coughing my lungs out; had I gone on I could have had serious health problems on the climb to the peak – people do die in the mountains when they do dumb things.)
So check the ultra race listings and read the course descriptions and reviews to find a ‘first timer’ friendly race. Most are run on trails, but a few are on pavement. I suggest you’ll have a better time on the trails, as long as you can train on trails.
So let’s assume you are more or less ‘marathon fit, and you are going to do a relatively non-technical trail 50K. There’s not really much of a secret here; if you have had success with a marathon training program, your 50K training won’t look all that much different (still, hiring a coach makes things much easier – they think, you run). Again, this is assuming you picked a ‘beginner friendly’ type of 50K – training for a tougher 50K will diverge a lot more from marathon training.
I submit you could use a marathon plan to prep for the 50K and get to the finish line. But you will feel better and be more confident about putting in those extra ~ 5 miles if you modify the marathon plan to increase the length of a few of the long runs, and simply put in more “time on your feet” as they say.
There is debate among ultra runners as to the utility of many of the types of training runs used for marathon and shorter race training, such as “threshold” runs (to improve anaerobic threshold), “intervals” (to improve maximal endurance, i.e. VO2max), and “repetitions” (to improve raw speed). I come down on the side of including threshold (aka tempo) runs at least, even though you will likely never run anything faster than your usual “easy run” pace in the ultra. Being more fit translates to the easy pace being, literally, easier – less effort to run the same pace. Just as for marathon and shorter training, I recommend running a handful of strides after a couple of easy runs each week to keep a bit of speed in the legs and to improve running form.
Others disagree and have had a lot of success doing lots of miles and training as close as possible on the type of terrain they will race on. The truth is there are multiple ways to reach the same ultra goal, so a lot depends on what you are comfortable with and what gives you the most confidence that you can finish in a vertical posture.
A good book to consider is called Relentless Forward Progress. It discusses many of the topics I’ve covered, and a lot more, and includes a lot of advice and opinions from experienced ultra runners. It has sample training plans, too.
I’ve never been very keen on the marathon for myself, and found myself in agreement with many others that a 50K with friends in the woods felt much easier than any road marathon. Chose your race well, train properly, stay off the roof and you likely will have a great time.
I am about to finish my freshman year of high school, and I want to be winning varsity races by the time I’m a sophomore. My personal best this year for the 100m is 11.57, but I want to be running high tens by grade 10. My track coach currently is terrible and only made me slower. Any suggestions?
That’s a tough situation to be in; perhaps a talk with your coach about why you think the training isn’t working for you is in order. I can’t know the specifics, but often high schools take any sport that isn’t football or basketball (and maybe baseball) much less seriously – as if they are just conditioning for other sports or purely recreational. In those cases I’ve seen the track coach be appointed not because he or she is a great track coach, but because he or she is a good football or basketball coach. But that should not be an excuse for that coach, who supposedly understands something about exercise physiology, not to get up to speed on the techniques of coaching track & field events.
One of the main factors for sprint training that might be missed by some coaches is the proper work to rest ratio. For a 100/200m runner, you want a training session of multiple short, fast sprints followed by very long recovery periods in between, often a 1:12 to 1:20 work to rest ratio, based on time ( e.g. an 8- 10s sprint followed by a 2 – 3 min rest) during which you walk and recuperate (and maybe do a few flexibility moves) so you are ready to be able to give a full effort on the next and all subsequent sprints. As a distance runner it pains me to say this, but to be a good short sprinter you have to mostly avoid endurance training, which has the effect of teaching some of your fast twitch muscle fibers to behave more like slow twitch (a positive for a marathoner, but a negative for a sprinter or power athlete). Carl Lewis wrote about rebelling against his high school coach who wanted him and the other sprinters running lots of laps, because he knew this would not be good for his speed. I remember watching Carl on a TV show called Superstars in which the contestants were jocks from different sports; during the 800m race sure enough, sub-10 second 100m runner Carl was really struggling on the second lap. It is okay to run a few easy laps as part of your warm-up, though; you want your muscles warm before you start sprinting. The bulk of the warm-up should still be various drills and range of motion exercises that follow the jogging.
If the coach really isn’t going to help you much after trying your best to communicate, the alternative could be (with the coach’s permission) to hire a personal coach to write your workouts. In the offseason there should be no problem working directly with a personal coach. (Ask around, and also look on the internet; http://coachup.com is one resource). There are also various commercial ‘speed schools’ and performance training centers you could look into. The main thing you would focus on is building your strength and power in the offseason, so they would show you safe and proper form for weight training and plyometric drills. They would also at some point do more direct work to help you translate that power into a faster start out of the blocks and on into the rest of the phases of the sprint, using good running form.
Of course this is going to cost some money, so that will factor into your and your parents’ decisions. Still, it isn’t something that is easy to do properly on your own, and the chances of injury in a do-it-yourself program are pretty high. But as a learning tool, you might pick up a copy of a book called Explosive Running by Michael Yessis.
On a positive, 11.57 is a good time for a freshman, especially since you might not have received the best coaching, and physical maturity alone is going to help you improve on that. Be patient, train consistently, and the speed will come out. Make sure you have both short term goals (as you stated in your question) and longer term goals (in the back of your mind) to motivate you, such as where you want to be your senior year and if you want to run in college.
What does that mean? Per USATF, Dr. Matt has “met all requirements of the registered coach program which includes an extensive background screen and completion of USOC SafeSport course.“
“The USATF Registered Coaches Program was conceived to establish a set of standards for all coaches affiliated with USA Track & Field. The program involves a four-pronged process, which results in a published list of coaches who have demonstrated the ethics, honesty and trustworthiness necessary for endorsement by the national governing body. The centerpiece of the process is a comprehensive Safe Sport Handbook which focuses on only the highest ethical and honorable standards. Registered Coaches also carry with them the rights and privileges available only to those within the registry. These benefits may include:
Discounts for premier seminars and coaching education programs
Registered Coach credential at USA National Championships
Selection to international team staffs
Selection for Coaching Enhancement Grants
Involvement in USATF High Performance Programs
Compensation from USATF or USOC athlete support programs “
“The Registered Coaches application process includes: (1) a current USATF membership, (2) a background screen, (3) completion of USOC SafeSport course, (4) agreement with the policies in the Safe Sport Handbook and (5) listing of your coaching affiliation.”
I’m a runner. How could I improve my weight and endurance?
I’m 34 years old and running 50 miles per week; I’m training for my next marathon and my weight is 52 kg (117 pounds approx ) and my Fat index is 4.3% (athletic measure option), 10.5% (normal measure option). [asked on Quora]
I’m not sure what you mean by “improve my weight”. Most of the time when people say that, they mean they want to lose weight, but at 117 lbs with low body fat, I don’t think that is what you are asking.
You don’t say how tall you are or what gender; I’m assuming you are male with a body fat percentage that low; if you are female then you have a whole other conversation about healthy body fat percentage you need to have with your doctor and perhaps a registered dietitian.
Either way, you could benefit from getting a more accurate estimate of your body composition (I’m assuming you used bioelectrical impedance or a similar consumer grade device). You can have this done at most university exercise physiology labs for a small fee.
This would give you a better idea if you have any room to drop a little bit of weight to improve your performance; keep in mind that about 4% is essential body fat for a man. Go lower than that and you will be sick and hurt; even at 4 – 5% you might have problems, but it is an individual thing. Some thin runners perform better by gaining a bit of weight (eating more) because they have more energy to put into their training and recovery. If you find you are 10% or higher, you could consider bringing it down slightly (again, if male). With the wide estimate range you have now, I don’t recommend trying to lose any weight. A female with body fat in that range would almost assuredly perform better by eating more and increasing body fat.
Improving endurance is a matter of proper training. For most non-elite runners, 50 mpw is a good amount given all the other demands of life. If you can swing it, at some point in your training you can try some higher mileage weeks in which you reduce intensity. For example, go up to 60 – 70 miles every few weeks, but cut back on the tempo, reps, or intervals you would have done that week. That’s pretty general; best thing to do is find a good training plan that fits your current fitness level and the amount of time you have until the marathon. You improve endurance and speed-endurance (ability to hold a “fast” pace) with a proper combination of running volume and intensity – more miles plus tempo, interval, and rep work at the right pace, etc.
Since moving to New Mexico from Florida three years ago, I’ve found that I rarely get more than a few grains of sand in my trail running shoes. I don’t miss it. Most of my Florida trail runs ended with me pouring sand out of my shoes and socks, followed by a good scrubbing of my blackened feet.
In Albuquerque I run in the Sandia Mountains several times a week and come home with mostly clean shoes and feet, save for an occasional cactus spine. Today I discovered that when it comes to sand, Florida has nothing on Los Lunas. Unlike Florida trails where you run for a few yards to maybe a half mile in “sugar sand” before hitting more solid turf, about 95% of the King of the Hill course is made of deep sand. There’s also a big hill, as you might guess from the name. Today I learned that running uphill in sand is much less fun than running downhill in sand. I heard several runners comment that the steep downhill section in deep sand was more like downhill skiing than running, and I concur. As long as I hit heel first, I would scoot/skate down the hill.
This was the type of course on which you had to pick your battles; take it slow and steady climbing up the steep sandy hills (I hit some 11 minute plus mile splits on those) and let go on the few hard packed sections and sandy downhills. One of the benefits of this type of race is that race time is irrelevant compared to any other course. The best you can do is compare to how everyone else did, unless you ran the course last year (which I did not).
The start (and finish) was on a cinder road, which was the best running surface of the course, with rolling hills that led to the trails. Quite a few folks made jackrabbit starts, apparently unaware that saving some energy early on this type of course would pay off later. I went into “stalker mode” right after the gun, knowing that on a tough course many of the folks that go out fast are folks I’m going to see again later (not counting the folks who are clearly faster than me).
After reaching the trails and coming to the realization that the course description of “some sand” was rather understated, I simply held as comfortable a pace as I could and waited for things to get better. After climbing the steepest namesake hill, the only section where for me walking was preferable to running, there was more gradual uphill slipping and sliding. My running form – arms flailing, truck twisting – reminded me of someone trying to swim in rough surf; road running is more like swimming in a pool in comparison. It was awkward, but fun to have a different challenge from the norm.
The trail was wide enough for vehicles (no single track at all), so my strategy was to run where the tire tracks had hopefully packed down the sand. That really didn’t help, so I found myself crossing back and forth trying to find the most solid ground. After a while I tried landing in the foot prints in front of me, using them like rock climbing hand-holds. I don’t think any of that really helped, other than to give my mind something to do besides focus on how hard I was working just to run that slow. Somewhere past the halfway mark I was relieved to find we were now going downhill and could actually start letting go and racing a little bit. I was still wind-milling my arms, but at least it was too keep me from going too fast and falling on my face on the downhill sections. I really hope no video was taken, but if there was it should probably be set to a Benny Hill style sound track.
Around that time a couple of gentlemen in turn went flying past me with reckless abandon on the downhills. There was of course still a lot of sand, so I calculated I would probably see one or both of them again near the finish. Other than those two, the only other runner near me was the soon to be second place woman, who was handling the course just a bit better than I was (ah, youth). Fairly early on I had caught the folks that went out too fast, so the overall places were just about sorted out. With around 2 or 2 ½ miles to go, we merged with the middle of the 5K race that had started 30 minutes after we had. I managed to weave through the bulk of those folks using a few shouts of “on your left” or “on your right”. Fortunately even those wearing headphones did a good job of letting the 10K runners pass, and having some people to catch helped me keep my focus. If the race grows much larger, however, they might need to rethink the logistics or this merging will cause a logjam.
As expected, around the 5 mile mark I caught one of the guys that had passed me earlier, then back on the cinder road with about ¾ mile to go I caught and passed the other guy. There was no use trying to catch the woman in front of me by that point, so I focused instead on passing the few 5K runners headed for the same finish line. By that point in a race this difficult, you just want to run fast so it can be over and you can get some red chili pancakes.
I crossed the line in 55:37, 16th overall and 1st in the “Old Geezers” (50-54) age group. For comparison, the winning time was 41:52 by some whippersnapper half my age. Dang kids. Other members of the Dukes TC also won their respective age groups, with Jesse Espinoza (46:54) finishing 5th overall and Ben Willis (48:06) taking 6th. We should probably suggest a team competition for next year, assuming Jesse recovers from his sand trauma by then.
Several members of the Albuquerque Road Runners also enjoyed the run, including Kathy Kirsling who won her age group and beat a slew of younger runners. As always, Perky Garcia was at the ready with her trusty instamatic and captured some great photos. Heck, she even got a picture of me (second picture below) not flailing, in addition to the post race photo below. Wendy Wiggins stated off the record that she is not fond of sand running.
Age group winners and not, everyone agreed this was one of the toughest 10K (or 5K) races they had ever run, with the word of the day being “sand”. So much sand. I poured about a half pound of it out of each shoe post-race, and it invaded my dreams last night. As I write this, over 24 hours later, my legs are sore and I’ve postponed my Sunday long run until tomorrow (I’ll get a short recovery run in this afternoon). It’s always best to recognize and accept when an adjustment to training is indicated, especially for us old folks who don’t recover as fast as we used too.
This was the second year for this run, and the organizers and volunteers did a great job. The red chili pancakes were a much appreciated post-race treat, and plenty of other food and water was available. I plan to return, but next time I will be wearing my winterized trail running shoes, a pair of no longer made New Balance MT110s with a neoprene zip-up booty covering. (I had them sitting by the door, but as I was leaving I foolishly thought, “nah, I won’t need those”.) They might be hot, but I think having sweaty feet will be more comfortable than having sand rolling around inside my shoes and causing a blister on my heel. If you don’t have anything like this, I suggest at least using shoe gaiters over the least porous shoes you own. There’s a lot of sand out there; you’ve been warned.
Update: Ask about charter member fees! Save up to $1200 a year!
In this blog post I briefly discuss how you might benefit from hiring a running coach. Full disclosure, since I am in the business of coaching runners I’m predisposed to thinking it’s a good idea. If I didn’t think it was helpful, I wouldn’t do it. Does everyone need a coach? Probably not, as I discuss below, but nearly everyone can improve more with the help of a good coach than they can on their own. Much depends on the runner’s goals and what they want to get out of the sport. I approach the topic using examples of some general categories of runners. Not everyone fits neatly into these categories, but I believe they illustrate how coaching can be a benefit in a variety of situations. Am I the right coach for you? We won’t find out unless we discuss it, so drop me a line if you are interested. No obligations, no hard feelings if it isn’t a good fit for your needs, or mine for that matter.
Do you need a coach?
Virtually any runner at any level – beginning fitness runner to Olympian – benefits from having a coach to help plan and guide his or her training. Some athletes do a good job training themselves, while other self-coached runners seem to “have a fool for a client”. Here are my thoughts on what you should consider when deciding if you would benefit from hiring a coach to guide your training.
Beginning adult runners are usually interested in running primarily to better their fitness. This is a wise choice for most, as running is one of the best and most efficient means to improve one’s health and endurance. It is common for beginners to take up the challenge of training for a 5k (3.1 miles) fun run that is a few weeks or months in the future. This distance is long enough to provide a motivating challenge, but short enough that finishing is a realistic goal for virtually anyone willing to prepare. Not all beginners are interested in participating in a formal fun run, but the principle is the same for working up to a given distance in your own neighborhood.
Many beginners are able to successfully use a “couch to 5k” or similar program to meet this initial fitness goal, but others find it difficult to customize a generic program for their particular needs or limitations. A coach will provide a plan customized to the current level of the runner. The training plan will progress at the appropriate rate for the appropriate length of time, and be modified along the way based on the runner’s feedback. A knowledgeable coach will also help cut through the maze of confusing and often conflicting information concerning proper footwear, clothing, hydration, nutrition, stretching and strengthening exercises, and be able to address the runner’s other questions and concerns. Having a coach helps reduce the ‘first race jitters’ by letting the runner know what to do and what to expect on race morning, and can prevent a beginning runner from making a lot of “rookie” mistakes in general. Better to learn from the mistakes of others than from the school of hard knocks. The bottom line is that while following a canned program will probably get you to the finish line, using a coach will help keep what should be a fairly simple and fun activity, well, simple and fun.
Beginning to Intermediate Runners
Then there are the runners who have met the challenge of a first 5k, loved the experience, and want to take up a new challenge but aren’t sure what to do next. They wonder if they should train to run faster 5ks, or to run farther (such as a 10k), or perhaps take up both challenges at once. Once that’s sorted out, it usually doesn’t take long for these runners to think of longer term goals, such as ‘maybe I can run a half marathon some day, or maybe even a full marathon of 26.2 miles’. It can be a daunting task to determine realistic goals and set realistic time frames for those goals. A coach will help with appropriate goal setting and design both short term and long term plans to reach those goals. A good coach also knows that sometimes a runner needs a pep talk to keep going, while at other times he or she will need help realizing it’s time to back off the throttle. If a runner has just completed her first 5k in 40 minutes and decides she will go for a sub-30 in a couple of weeks, her coach will gently let her know that a sub-30 is possible in the longer term, but will help her set a more realistic short term goal. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Some intermediate level runners are happy to keep running mostly for the fun and fitness aspects, and perhaps the challenge of running longer distances ‘just to finish’, while other will catch the competition bug and become more performance oriented ‘age groupers’ and beyond. Both are fine choices, each with its own set of challenges and rewards. Some people want to run a Boston Marathon qualifier and some want to run a marathon in every state, while most are somewhere in between. Every runner is unique and each should determine what they want out of the sport. The coach is there to help guide the runner along whatever path he or she chooses.
Intermediate to Advanced Runners
Some ‘advanced’ runners are not all that experienced. On occasion, a runner discovers he or she has some real talent for running during their first race, maybe placing in the age group competition after minimal training, and catches the racing bug. I think these runners especially benefit from having a coach to guide them since it is all too easy to do “too much, too soon” which can lead to injury and burn out. Even if the runner takes a more conservative approach, it is difficult to know just how to train and he or she will be exposed to confusing, conflicting, and outright bad advice. In the information age, everyone is an “expert”. But in general when I use the term advanced runner, I am referring to someone that’s been around the sport for a while and has a good grasp on what it’s all about.
Some experienced runners with a solid understanding of the physiological principles underpinning endurance training do just fine by modifying a “cookie cutter” training program from a book, magazine, or website. There are many good resources available for those willing to invest the time in designing their own training program. Still, it should be remembered that even world class, Olympic level runners nearly all employ coaches. Runners at all levels benefit from a cooperative coach-athlete relationship in which the coach helps plan and modify training. For many athletes, having someone else do the bulk of the thinking means they are free to just go execute the workouts. If you are knowledgeable and analytical, you may still prefer designing your own training program. Otherwise, consider the benefits of working with a coach.
Another factor to consider is that it is common for runners to find their progress has stagnated after a year or more in the sport. When they first began serious running, their times improved rapidly as they improved their fitness, which is the norm. This almost magical improvement from race to race is very rewarding, but usually only lasts a year or two with adult runners before fitness levels off. This is due to the “floor effect”; the less fit you are when you start, the more room for improvement you have; in other words, even with modest training you can only go up. But eventually the runner discovers the “ceiling effect”, meaning that the less room there is left for improvement the more effort it takes to make small gains. When dealing with performance improvement in running, the law of diminishing returns is in play. It really is easier and quicker, physiologically speaking, to go from an initial 45 minute 5k to a 30 minute 5k than it is to get from that 30 minutes down to 25 minutes. For many runners, the former occurs in the space of a few months, while that latter may take another one or two years. Once performance has leveled off, a coach can usually figure out how to help a runner make those small, incremental improvements that can be even more rewarding than the initial break-through runs. If you are stuck in place or sliding backwards in your performances, I consider that to be one of the best reasons of all to hire a coach.
This group includes athletes that previously ran for a NAIA, NCAA or other collegiate cross-country and/or track & field program, and elite runners who are of that same general age range (20s and 30s) even if they did not run for a college team. These are professional runners, even though only a handful makes a living solely from running.
Please note, before engaging the services of a private coach, any athlete with eligibility and considering competing for a collegiate or scholastic program is advised to determine if doing so is within the rules of the governing bodies and institutions involved. It should also go without saying that any such athlete should not accept any sponsorship or prize money that could jeopardize his or her amateur status.
I’ve already mentioned that Olympic level runners nearly all have coaches. At that level the coaches are usually paid by some combination of money from the athlete’s sponsors, national governing body, and a percentage of the athlete’s prize money. Most post-collegiate runners aspiring to reach that level can at best get some free gear and maybe a small training stipend from their sponsors or other groups, in addition to whatever prize money they might win. Fortunately in the US some training programs have been set up over the last few years to help these runners pursue their dreams. Unfortunately, not every elite runner is quite at the level to earn one of the limited spots in those groups. Some may continue to work with their former collegiate or high school coaches, but many simply have little choice but to coach themselves while working a part-time job. Few runners at this young professional level doubt the importance of having a coach to guide their short and long term progress. If you are a post-collegiate/elite runner who falls in that gap I’ve just described, I invite you to contact me to see what we can work out.
Masters competition for most running events begins on one’s 40th birthday. The older one gets, the more factors must be considered in designing a training program. It is a very rare masters runner that can continue doing the same volume and intensity of training he or she did as a 25 or 30 year old. In fact, most runners notice that it becomes more and more difficult to properly recover after hard workouts as they move through their 30s. Of course, many masters runners only enter the sport after their 40th birthday, some far after, so this is another factor taken into account when designing a training program. While the experienced masters runner knows his or her fastest days are probably in the past, a beginner to intermediate masters runner is likely to improve for some time, but still needs more rest and more injury prevention measures than a younger counterpart. For the masters athlete, a coach becomes invaluable for squeezing the maximum benefit out of the minimal amount of training necessary.
Until next time, be well and happy trails!
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In the last post [Part I – The Weird Kid], I discussed my early childhood quirks, weight issues, orthopedic shoes, lack of coordination, being picked last for every team, and my early awakening to the possibility of something better. In this post, I continue the story, including my embarrassing attempts to play big time basketball, designing my first workout sessions, my inauspicious entry into high school track, and a life changing revelation..
I formally began my health fitness journey in 1976 as an overweight 13 year old 7th grader. I was somewhat less physically awkward than I had been in grade school, thanks to physical education class (absent from the grade school curriculum), my discovery of softball, and by this time basketball. Regarding the latter, I learned to shoot pretty well, as long as no one was guarding me. In other words, I was an okay H.O.R.S.E. player on the hoop above the garage door. I would sometimes spend hours by myself just taking shots when I had no H.O.R.S.E. opponent, or my brother wasn’t beating me in a lopsided game of one-on-one.
We had a gravel driveway at the farm, so quite often the ball would ricochet off a rock and go careening down the big hill. My brother and I would nearly always fight over whose turn it was to run after the ball before it ended up a quarter mile away. I’m pretty sure this was not the way Michael Jordan’s basketball career began. I did learn to dribble the ball using the concrete floor in the garage or in the basement. As with shooting, I was pretty good as long as no one was guarding me. However, with the gravel driveway situation, I rarely was able to effectively practice coordinating my dribbling and shooting. I did try, and have the scars on my knees to show for it.
In keeping with what would become a lifelong theme for me, I did not let my near total lack of skills keep me from trying out for the 7th grade team. The state religion of Kentucky is, after all, Southern Basketball, so I was convinced my life would only be complete if I could become a big star, win a high school state championship, and play for the University of Kentucky Wildcats. Or the Louisville Cardinals; I was conflicted about which team I liked best. Indiana was right out, though.
Not surprisingly, at tryouts when I got my turn to play one-on-one in front of the coaches, all I could do was turn my back on the other player and keep dribbling in a feeble attempt to back up towards the basket like I had seen real players do on TV. This would continue until the opponent either knocked the ball away, I dribbled off my foot, or the coach got frustrated and ended the drill. On my turn to play defense, the other player either was as bad as me and we had another dribbling stalemate, or he was much better and just dribbled past me to the basket. I appreciated the coaches’ ability to keep their eye-rolling to a minimum.
The next day, the head coach posted a list of the 30 or so players that had not yet been cut. Needless to say, my name was not on that list. At the time, I thought this was a great injustice; “they’re just going to cut me instead of teaching me to play basketball?” I remembered the feeling from grade school of not being picked at all for schoolyard games, only this time it was adults letting me know I wasn’t good enough. This being the first real sports team I had tried out for, I didn’t fully grasp that the purpose was to pick the best players and teach them how to win against other schools. This was serious business in Kentucky, a state which has only one boys’ and one girls’ state champion each year (the plot to Hoosiers occasionally plays out in Kentucky.)
Given that nearly every boy in the class had tried out, and nearly all were cut, an intramural basketball league was formed, with some very nice teachers giving their own time to “coach”. Coaching in this context simply meant being sure every boy got a chance to play in each game, and with only three teams there were a lot of us on the bench. The games themselves were unorganized free-for-alls, but I got a couple of rebounds and shot the ball once or twice, despite my own teammates’ attempts to wrestle the ball away from me. These were low-scoring affairs, usually something like 10 – 8, but my team won the tournament and I received my first blue ribbon for something other than an art contest.
Part of my motivation for getting fit now involved making the basketball team, but I did not try out again until high school. The largest part of my fitness plan motivation remained to lose weight and improve my health. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t very gifted in terms of sports, and unlikely to actually make the basketball team. I briefly considered trying out for football, thinking my extra heft might be an advantage, but my mother refused to let me break my neck playing that foolish game. My father made only a faint hearted attempt to intervene. My parents had grown up during the Great Depression, so they had no time for something as frivolous as sports; if it didn’t put food on the table then what was the point? Ironically, they did later convert to the state religion and become college basketball fans, after my brother and I started regularly watching games on TV.
I was a bookworm, so once I decided I needed to get fit I absorbed everything I could find on the topics of diet and exercise. There was no internet in those days, so most of my information came from health and fitness articles in newspapers and magazines, books from the school library, and the occasional fitness segment on the local TV news. One great resource was a weekly newspaper column by an exercise science professor from the University of Louisville.
The first “running boom” was underway in America in the mid-1970s, which brought along a great deal of advice on how to be a “jogger” and all the benefits it would bring. So, naturally, I made jogging a part of my exercise program, with no thought yet of becoming a “runner”. Jogging was just part of a well-balanced routine. I learned that one was never to get out of breath while jogging, but rather one should go at a pace to be able to carry on a conversation. (This is still good advice, in regards to running for health and for ‘easy pace’ training runs.)
Jogging was such a craze that People Magazine ran a feature story on celebrity joggers, including the likes of country singer and actor Jerry Reed, 1945 Miss America Bess Myerson, Batman’s “Penguin”, Burgess Meredith, and even crusty old Senator Strom Thurmond, then age 75 (1). The cover featured 1970s power couple Farrah Fawcett and (Eastern Kentucky alum and Six Million Dollar Man ) Lee Majors in jaunty jogging togs (fig. 1). These celebrities spoke of jogging as a means to look and feel better, and while the word ‘running’ was used interchangeably with ‘jogging’, the word ‘racing’ never appeared. This information will be useful to you later in my story.
As an aside, let me clarify the actual difference between “jogging” and “running”. In the broadest sense, there is none. From a biomechanical standpoint, if you are ambulating on foot, you are either walking or running (or skipping, hopping, or galloping, which most of us don’t do often in adulthood). In walking, one foot remains in contact with the ground at all times, and at one point in the gate cycle both feet are in contact with the ground. When a race walker is disqualified, it is nearly always because he or she was seen multiple times with both feet off the ground at the same time, which is defined as running. The running gait cycle has a “flight” phase in which both feet are off the ground; also, unlike in walking, both feet are never in contact with the ground at the same time.
From a practical standpoint, the difference between jogging and running is in the eye of the beholder. Jogging and “easy paced running” for a given individual are probably conducted at the same pace. The difference, then, is merely one of intention; people that say they are joggers are usually doing it only for health fitness reasons, while people that say they are runners are doing it for something beyond health, usually to prepare for a race or to otherwise improve their running ability. This dichotomy was quite strong in the 1970s, but one very rarely hears people refer to themselves as joggers anymore. It is very well accepted today that if you run, even if you don’t race or run fast, you are a runner.
Dynamic Tension and The Exercise Plan
Part of what I had learned in my early study of exercise was the importance of strength training. In addition to the jogging craze, body building had entered the mainstream. Prodded by a comic book advertisement featuring a skinny dude getting sand kicked in his face by a bully (fig 2), I sent away for more information on the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension program (which is apparently still a thing). I found the description of the program seemed kind of silly, and not much in keeping with what I had been reading, so I put it aside. I did first take a good teasing from my Dad and my brother about my apparent Mr. Universe aspirations when they saw the envelope on which Atlas’s brawny 1950s Speedo-clad picture appeared. I was still primarily interested in what strength training could do for my health, my weight loss goal, and possibly my basketball abilities. If I happened to get all muscled up, that would be a bonus. (I wasn’t yet familiar with the difficulty and specificity of muscle hypertrophy training.) I bought a 110-pound plastic coated concrete weight set with a $20 gift certificate I had won in a K-Mart coloring contest (the solid bar from that set is still in my arsenal). My father had purchased several rough hewn wooden benches when a Ponderosa Steak House closed down, so one of those became my weight bench. With these tools and my exercise knowledge in hand, I set about designing my own workout program.
I recently found some of the papers on which I had sketched out my program tucked away in a running memorabilia box. The list includes such items as “lift weights” (using the basic exercises described in a booklet that came with the weight set), “jog to the barn and back” (about one mile total, sometimes making multiple trips), “ride bike to end of road” (still amazed my Stingray and I didn’t get crushed on the one lane country road), and “do exercises”, by which I meant static stretching (I became quite a contortionist, a topic for another post), and some P.E. class style calisthenics. By high school I had added jumping rope, and became pretty good at doing cross-overs, single leg hops, and other tricks I had seen fellow Louisvillian Mohammed Ali doing on TV.
I dutifully recorded my weight on 3 x 5 cards and watched it go down a little at a time, which I had read was (quite correctly) the healthy way to do it. I also limited my dates with Little Debbie and her friends, and began seeing more of her neighbors, fruits and veggies. After a while I didn’t miss the sweet treats, but I did have one occasionally. I had read that moderation was the key to good diet, and an occasional indulgence is fine, which is as true today as it was then. And while I didn’t crave those snacks, I still liked them. With all the fad diets I have seen come and go and come again over the last 40 years, I realize that having learned this dietary wisdom early on prevented a lot of heartache and yo-yo dieting.
A Little More Bad Basketball
I had kept to my new healthy lifestyle through middle school, and continued playing lunch time softball and bad gravel driveway basketball. While I was fitter, I was still a bit chubby when I entered high school, and I had not specifically trained for basketball. I was about average in height for my age and had, probably, an 8-inch vertical leap at best (indicating very little fast twitch muscle fiber, I now know), so not exactly the raw tools for basketball stardom. But you know me; I went out for the basketball team anyway, having decided once again that the path to Nirvana passed through a high school championship, and then either the Kentucky Wildcats or Louisville Cardinals. My high school did win the state championship that year, and had a player win a scholarship to Kentucky, but of course I was not on the team. My freshman basketball team tryout went pretty much the same as 7th grade tryouts, with the exasperated coach calling time on my dribbling stalemate with another not very talented player. A student sitting in the nearby bleachers, there to volunteer as team manager in order to get a varsity jacket, no doubt, smirked, shook his head and asked me why I had even tried out. “Why are you just sitting there”, I replied as I walked away.
One thing was very different this time, however, for which I am grateful to the coach. At the end of the tryouts, after stating that most of us would not be moving forward in the process, he gave a pep talk reminding us that there was more to life than basketball (a heretical statement if ever one was uttered in the state of Kentucky). He told us that in just a few weeks time, there would also be baseball, golf, tennis, and track & field (and probably that we should study hard and become good citizens or something). He noted that, in particular, the track team usually allowed anyone that came to practice every day to stay on the team. He also indicated that many of the events didn’t require the types of skills one would need for basketball, a polite way of saying we uncoordinated kids could probably at least run without falling down too much.
After the pep talk from the basketball coach, I gave up the hoop dreams and decided to join the school track team. I approached the first day of practice with great trepidation. I had never been on a real sports team before, and in my mind all coaches were mean Army drill sergeants that yelled and made you drop and give them twenty. It didn’t help that my brother was also on the team, and had been for a couple of years. He inherited any athletic skills that were to be had in our family, and I sensed he might not want his “tag along” little brother embarrassing him at practice. Whether that was true or not, it was in my mind, along with the idea that the other kids were going to think I didn’t belong on the team.
But that first day I put on my jock strap, my P.E. uniform, and my Sears The Winner™ jogging shoes (fig 3) and went nervously to the track. (Those were some really terrible, rock hard, stiff shoes, by the way, and helped me learn all about “shin splints”.) I had reasoned I was already jogging several miles per week, so I wasn’t completely out of my element. I also remembered having watched the ‘76 Olympics, and thinking that distance running thing didn’t look too hard. It surely didn’t require much agility or coordination, as the basketball coach had insinuated. In addition, as a kid with chubby thighs, I was amazed you could see the runners’ sinewy leg muscles. I decided I wanted legs like that, not like those of Charles Atlas. Of course I had no idea just how fast those runners were moving or how much training they did. I had been learning about exercise and jogging for health and fitness, not for competition.
Believe it or not, I briefly gave thought to throwing the shot that first day, using the same faulty logic as I did for middle school football; that my extra weight would be useful. After all, shot putters were really big, and most of them looked pretty fat. But once I saw the older guys throwing I knew that would be folly for me; I had neither the strength nor agility to do more than drop the shot on my foot. The coach was experienced and knew better anyway. He sized me up and did what coaches do with most kids with no signs of sprint speed or the agility needed for field events; he put me in the mile. I assume this was because the race was long enough for the non-sprinters to have a chance, while being short enough that the slow pokes wouldn’t hold up the track meet’s rolling schedule too much. After a couple of weeks of practice, with me falling behind on every training run, I was allowed to run the junior varsity mile in our first home meet. This was an over-crowded affair, with all the kids that had yet to quit their respective teams piled into one massive heat. I was nervous but ready, because I had read all that literature on jogging. The gun went off and …
I finished last in every race that first season, and was actually lapped by most of the field during each of these four lap events. It wasn’t until the end of the season that I realized I was supposed to run as fast as I could. As ridiculous as that sounds, I had read so many books and articles about proper “jogging for health”, I thought the guys running all out and getting out of breath were “doing it wrong”. I was still kind of a weird kid.
At a practice just before the last meet of the season, one of my sprinter friends asked me to run some of his 220 yard (half lap) repeat sprints with him. I doubt he thought I would be of much help with his pacing, but he had come to practice late and didn’t want to do his workout alone. I was nearly finished with my assigned workout, so I agreed. I still don’t know what triggered this response, but somehow when he took off I decided to stay right on his shoulder most of the way. I mentally locked on to him and let him “pull” me around the curve and down the home stretch. I did a few of the sprints with him and managed to run them all just a few seconds behind him, and this was a sprinter. Not that he was running all out, but still, a sprinter! This was the first time since that relay race in grade school, the one in which I was shed of the orthopedic shoes, that I understood what it was to run as fast as I could. It hurt, but in a good way. During one of those sprints the epiphany hit; “I’m supposed to be running the mile like this, at the fastest pace I can for that distance!” I wasn’t just jogging for health anymore; I was a runner.
While I would like to tell you I tore up my final mile race of the season, the truth is I was over a hill behind the track helping with a field event and did not hear the calls for my race. I looked up at the track and saw my race was underway and my heart sank. I had blown my chance at redemption. That was the end of my freshman track season; three last place finishes and a DNS (did not start).
The next opportunity I had to try out my new strategy was in P.E. class. We were doing a module on track and field, and while I was pretty bad at most of the events we had to try – falling over hurdles, tossing the discus into the cage, long jumping short of the sand pit – the final event was the mile run. It was my opportunity to finally see how fast I could go. I did not record my time for any of my mile races, and I’m not sure I even knew that was done or what a good time would be. The best I can estimate is that, having been lapped by people running anywhere from under 5 minutes to about 6 minutes, I probably ran 9 or 10 minutes at best.
The P.E. class mile was perhaps the most dreaded activity of the entire school year for nearly every freshman, but of course I was ready to show everyone what a member of the track team could do. The mile was my specialty, you know. It didn’t hurt that the teacher was also the girls’ track coach, so it was my chance to show her that what she had seen out of me at our meets was no longer the runner I had become. It was a chance to undo some of the embarrassment I now felt over my athletic naivety. Once we were underway several boys took off like it was the 100 yard dash. These boys flamed out by the end of the first lap. Most of the other students quickly became red-faced and began panting for air, and many began walking. I and another member of the track team, a pole-vault specialist and sometimes sprinter, went to the front of the pack in the second lap and pulled away from the few students left that were still focused on running instead of puking. This pace hurt, and my legs were burning over the last lap and a half, but I realized this is what it’s like to race the mile. My pole-vaulter friend beat me to the line, but finishing a close second to a very good athlete was no shame, and certainly better than getting lapped. I don’t exactly remember my time, but I think it was around 6 minutes or 6:15, and considering nearly all my training had been at “jogging” pace, that wasn’t too bad.
Despite the minor redemption of the P.E. class mile, I was still peeved about missing the last race of my freshman track season. I remember the emotions that welled up the day of the last meet as I realized I had missed my chance to put my new found knowledge and motivation to the test in front of my coaches and teammates. But I soon realized that I had the entire summer to train for fall cross country season, and I was determined to make the most of it. By this time I was beginning to think that I might be better at longer distances, and cross country races were 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).
The fuse was lit.
In the next post, I will continue the amazing true story of my metamorphosis through high school In the meantime, feel free to send me any running questions you would like me to address in future posts.
Today’s post contains the first part of the story of how an awkward, uncoordinated, sedentary, overweight, slowest kid in his class became a collegiate cross country and track athlete, and beyond. The moral of the story is, “if this kid can do it, you can do it”, or perhaps, “don’t let fear and a lack of talent keep you from trying things”.
In the near future I will write more about running science, but first I hope sharing my story provides some motivation, especially for those contemplating taking that first step out the door.
Orthopedic Shoes, Coloring Contests, and Ding Dongs
In my early grade school years, I was put into just what every child wants; clunky, stiff “Thomas heel” orthopedic shoes (fig. 1). The intention was to correct my flat feet and duck-walk gait. I don’t know if it was the shoes, my poor coordination, or both, but I sprained my ankles frequently, so I usually had a slight limp. I was later fitted for some super cool over-sized plastic framed glasses, which perpetually slid down my nose. Metal-framed glasses were in vogue at the time, but my mother knew I would just break those (by 6th grade she relented). Debonair I was not.
The regular hobbies of my youth included reading, drawing, arts & crafts, fishing, and competing in the Sunday Cappy Dick newspaper cartoon coloring contest (fig. 2). I also watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Nutty Buddies, and other treats. The combination of too much sedentary play time and too many dates with Little Debbie resulted in my becoming quite fat early in life, and sometimes enduring taunts of “fatso” from other kids. I suffered the indignity of wearing euphemistically labeled “husky” sized clothing, and I tended to outgrow them quickly. My older brother sometimes got the bum deal of having to wear my JC Penney “hand-me-ups”, which fit in the waist but not in the length. This did come in handy for him during rain storms. You’re welcome, big brother.
It should come as no surprise that the husky, klutzy kid with the orthopedic shoes and thick glasses was picked last for every schoolyard game, usually kickball, tag, or shuttle relay races. Illustrative of my social awkwardness, I didn’t even realize that I had been picked last; since no one ever called my name I just dejectedly concluded that they didn’t want me to play at all. Somehow, the default nature of the last one left going to the team with the last pick had eluded me. Eventually, I became upset enough at this perceived slight that I just put myself on one of the teams. About half the time that team would, of course, tell me to go to the other team. It took me a while to put the clues together.
The Relay Race, Softball, and an Amazing Discovery
The relay races were especially difficult in the orthopedic shoes, which were ridged, heavy, and made the distinctive clopping sound of a herd of Clydesdales. One day, perhaps because the orthopedic shoes were muddy, or perhaps because I begged mercilessly, my mother let me wear a pair of my brother’s gum-soled suede leather chukkas to school. They were a little too big, but oh so comfortable and flexible. I rarely got into trouble at school (I saved my little hellion routine for home), so I was mortified when the teacher scolded me for putting my feet on the wall. She had no idea I was simply marveling at the lack of orthopedic-ness of the shoes, which seemed magical to me. Later at recess, it was relay race time and I was anxious to see what I could do in these magic shoes. Before that day, my relay leg always went one of three ways; my team was behind and I got us further behind, my team was even and I got us behind, or my team was ahead and I got us behind, all while my teammates loudly scolded me for being so slow. This day would be different. When my teammate slapped my hand both teams were dead even, and I took off running as hard as I could. For the first time ever, I ran side-by-side with the other kid all the way to the next exchange, all the while my amazed teammates cheering wildly. That was the first time I felt the rush of running fast, and of being competitive in something physical. A seed was planted, but it would be a few years before it sprouted.
Before my fourth grade year, my father decided that Green Acres was the place to be, so we moved from the suburbs of Louisville to a small farm in a neighboring county. The rural public school was 25 miles and a world apart from the suburban parochial school I had attended, and it took me a while to adjust. One of the adjustments was the realization that these kids had never heard of kickball or relay races, and instead spent recess playing an exotic game called “softball”. That first year I either went to the playground equipment or just sat and watched the others play the game, since I didn’t know what was going on. But the next year I decided to try it, and while I never learned to hit very well, I did learn to catch the ball (and then toss it to some other close-by kid who actually knew where to throw it next). By the middle school years I was playing softball well enough to not be picked last. By that time I was long rid of orthopedic shoes, and was instead wearing “tennis shoes” to school like almost every other boy. My glasses were still sliding down my nose, though.
Having discovered during middle school that I could enjoy doing something sport-like, and also that girls did not, in fact, have cooties, led to the conclusion that it was time for me to lose the extra weight and get in shape. In the next post, I discuss how I did that, and the unlikely journey to becoming a competitive runner.