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Long Cutdown Runs

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Oct 28, 2007


A cutdown run, also called a progression run, is a run in which you gradually or incrementally increase your pace as you go. There are infinite varieties of cutdown runs, the variables distinguishing them being the total distance of the run, whether the pace increases via a smooth acceleration or in designated increments at predetermined points, the starting pace, the finishing pace, the number of pace increases (in the case of incremental increases) and the distance or duration of running at each pace level. A cutdown run can serve any of a variety of different purposes depending on how these variables are manipulated.



Yesterday I tried a type of cutdown run that was new for me. The total distance was 24 miles. I planned to divide it into six, four-mile blocks at the following average pace levels: 7:30/mile, 7:25, 7:00, 6:45, 6:30, 6:15. The general purpose of the run was to develop specific endurance for my coming marathon: that is, the ability to sustain pace levels close to my goal race pace for nearly the full marathon distance. I was able to complete the workout more or less as planned. My actual average pace for each four-mile block was 7:18, 7:10, 6:56, 6:34, 6:27, 6:17. As you can see, I ran each of the first five segments faster than planned (the fourth segment much faster) and ran the sixth and last segment slightly slower than planned. I was really hurting in those last four miles as a result of having held too little energy in reserve over the first 20 miles.



Nevertheless, I believe the workout served its specific purpose, which was twofold.  One major function of a long cutdown workout is this type is to challenge the body to run close to goal marathon pace when already severely fatigued from prolonged running. The second major function is to inure your mind to the suffering that comes with trying to sustain a fairly aggressive pace when you're already very tired. Your mind and body will be forced to face these challenges in an extreme way in the marathon itself, so it's helpful to simulate them in workouts.



Man, are these workouts hard, though! I felt like a zombie for hours after finishing my long cutdown workout yesterday. Thank heavens I only have to do one more, next week.



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Winging It

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Oct 22, 2007


In the past, when I trained for marathons I followed highly structured long-term training plans. This time I'm sort of winging it. I have not actually written down a single workout in advance of doing it. My planning has consisted in mentally making a fairly specific agenda for each week of training while engaging in the previous week's workouts. I have also had some "milestone workouts" in mind since the beginning. Milestone workouts are challenging workouts that are important at various stages of the training process as fitness boosters and fitness barometers. For example, since day one of my marathon preparations I have intended to do a 20-mile run with the last 10 miles at marathon pace (6 minutes per mile) three weeks before race day. My only other planning has consisted in scheduling a few tune-up races and aiming for a peak miles per week target (80, which I hit last week).



So far this approach has worked very well for me. My fitness has increased steadily, I am on track to achieve my race goal, and I'm uninjured. Two factors have allowed this approach to work as well as it has. First, I have a solid understanding of a few core principles of effective training that enable me to guide my training confidently and effectively without a lot of detailed pre-planning. These principles include the principle of specificity (I try to make my hard workouts increasingly race-specific as race day draws nearer) and the hard-easy rule (alternating hard workouts with easy workouts and hard weeks with easy weeks). Second, I listen to my body, and use the information my body gives me each day to determine my most immediate training needs. This practice is itself one of my core training principles.



I believe I have mentioned previously in this blog that I am writing a book with elite running coach Brad Hudson entitled Run Faster from The 5K to The Marathon. Brad's coaching philosophy is very much a "winging it" type of approach. In the book we use the term "adaptive running" to describe this philosophy. I was inspired to try a self-directed version of adaptive training in preparing for my next marathon by my work with Brad, who is a genius.



It really boils down to letting intuitive hunches guide your training instead of only consciously held beliefs. If you're an experienced runner, these intuitive hunches will be informed by your conscious knowledge and remembered experience anyway. Recently psychologists have gained a much greater appreciation for the power and effectiveness of hunches, because they come from very clever subconscious parts of our minds that aggregate more information and move faster than our conscious intellects ever will. There's a great book about the power and effectiveness of hunches called Blink, by Malcom Gladwell. But if you're a runner looking to harness this aptitude you can skip Blink and just read Run Faster when it is published next July!



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Run As Hard As You Can

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Oct 15, 2007


Lately I've been thinking a lot about what it means to run as hard as you can. We take it for granted that running as hard as you can, or giving a maximum effort, is necessary to achieve the objective of completing a race in the shortest amount of time possible. The thing is, in long-distance running events (heck, even in relatively short running events), you can't achieve the fastest time by starting the race at a full sprint and trying to sustain an absolute maximum effort all the way to the finish line. You have to hold back, pace yourself, calculate, apportion your energy, whatever you want to call it. The notion of running as hard as you can must be considered in relation to distance. And this reality certainly complicates the notion of running as hard as you can.



Exercise scientists used to think they knew what it meant to run as hard as you can. When the muscles encountered certain hard limits such as a maximum tolerable concentration of lactic acid, they failed, and the runner faltered. So running as hard as you could meant running at the fastest steady speed you could sustain without hitting one of these limits and faltering before the finish. But recent research has shown that these limits are theoretical only, and are never reached in practice, because the brain self-protectively causes fatigue to occur before they are ever reached. There seems to be some flexibility in these mechanisms, such that the body is allowed to work closer to its true mechanical limits in some circumstances than in others. This complicates the notion of running as hard as you can still further.



There are all kinds of examples of the fluidity of running as hard as you can. For example, every exercise scientist knows that experiments involving exercise bouts to exhaustion are highly irreproducible.  In these experiments, subjects climb aboard treadmills or stationary bikes and work at a fixed intensity until they can continue no longer. When such experiments are repeated more than once with the same subjects at the same intensity in the same circumstances (with rest days between them, of course), their times to exhaustion vary considerably. The subjects always feel they have given it their all, but their "all" is seldom the same twice.In fact, it's usually not even close to the same.



Another example from my own experience is the influence of split times in races. More than once I have found myself really struggling in the middle of a racerunning as hard as I could and beginning to falterwhen I've passed a mile marker and received a split time that informed me I was on pace to set a personal best for the distance. And what happened next? Suddenly I was able to run harder to the finish. So apparently I wasn't running as hard as I could earlier, when I thought I was running as hard as I could.



I am beginning to believe there is really no such thing as running as hard as you can. But what you can do is run harder than you ever have before. That's the purpose that goals serve--especially time-based goals. If you ran 41:12 in your last 10K, you might set a goal to run under 41 minutes in your next 10K. If you pull it off, you won't know whether you ran as hard as you could, but you will know that you ran harder than ever before. Now it's time to run even harder!



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A Sirius Announcement

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Oct 11, 2007

Today I was interviewed by Tina Vindum, hostess of "Outdoor Fitness with Tina Vundum," a radio show broadcast on the Sirius satellite radio network. Although I was not previously aware of the show's existence, it is apparently quite popular, with more than 7 million North American listeners. The interview was taped and will be broadcast Saturday, October 13, at 9 AM EST on Channel 114, and rebroadcast on Sunday, October 14, at 1 PM. Afterward you can listen to the show anytime via podcast here:


The interview lastest 16 minutes and we mainly discussed topics related to my new book, Brain Training for Runners. Coincidentally, the guest immediately preceding me was Dr. Timothy Noakes, the pioneering exercise physiologist who wrote the foreword to my book. Noakes is a genius and a great man, and I have no doubt he gave a better interview than I did. So if you only listen to one of the two, listen to his!



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Anytime you run a marathon, you want to start it well hydrated and minimize dehydration during the race by drinking throughout it. (It is not necessary to completely offset dehydration during a marathon, and for faster runners it's more or less impossible.) At the same time, if you're trying to finish the marathon as quickly as possible, you don't want to have to urinate during the marathon. It takes at least 20 seconds for a male runner who doesn't have to go too badly to make a porta-potty pit stop. Those 20 seconds could mean the difference between breaking your PR and not breaking it.


Naturally, the goals of starting the marathon fully hydrated and minimizing dehydration throughout the marathon and avoiding pit stops are potentially conflicting. The easiest way to ensure that you start a marathon fully hydrated, after all, is to guzzle a liter or so of water between the time you wake up in the morning and the time you start running. But if you do that, you will almost certainly have to urinate at some point during the marathon.



How do you accomplish both goals simultaneously? It's not so hard. Many runners overestimate the amount of fluid they need to consume on the morning of a marathon. If you hydrate properly ever day leading up to your marathon, you probably only need to consume 12 ounces of water, juice or a sports drink after you wake up to compensate for fluid lost through respiration during the night and urination first thing in the morning. There's nothing to be gained from drinking more.



After having to make pit stops in a couple of marathons, I tried a new tactic of ceasing to drink anything in the final 90 minutes before the race start. I usually urinate twice during those last 90 minutes, my body getting rid of the excess from my early morning hydration efforts. This assures me that I am starting the race well hydrated and with an empty bladder.



If you use this tactic, there is certainly no need to moderate your fluid intake during the marathon to aoid pit stops. You will lose more fluid throught perspiration that you can comfortably consume while running, so if you start with an empty bladder, it will stay fairly empty.



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"Just Do The Work"

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Oct 1, 2007

Training for a marathon is a grind, if you do it right. A well designed and properly executed marathon training program dishes out as much hard work as you can handle. Inevitably, then, there will be many days when you feel the toll of your recent hard work in your legs, and you don't run particularly well. Of course, if you never (or rarely) feel strong while training for a marathon, then you're obviously trying to do too much. Your fitness makes the biggest leaps forward on the days when you feel strongest and run best. Without adequate recovery, those days don't happen. But those "grinding" days, when you feel sort of flat, are nothing to worry about, as long as they don't become too frequent, and they can do a lot for your fitness, too, if you do in fact grind through them (instead of wimping out, which you should only do when you feel truly lousy).


I have a mantra that I use to help me grind through those tough workouts when I feel sort of flat. "Just do the work," I tell myself. Like a lot of competitive runners, I am very time focused. I pay close attention to my pace in all of my workouts. Thus, when I do any workout involving faster running and I struggle to sustain my target pace, I tend to become frustrated. Telling myself to "Just do the work" is my way of reminding myself that my split times in any single workout really don't matter. What matters is completing the workout as well as I can on any given day. In becoming too time-focused it's easy to forget that I still benefit from workouts in which my times are substandard. If I just do the work each day, my fitness will increase, and my performance will improve. If I just do the work, sooner or later I will have a workout in which I run much faster than expected.



It just happened last weektwiceas a matter of fact. Two weeks ago I had one of those grinding weeks, when I had to tell myself to "just do the work" every day. But I was rewarded last week. On Tuesday I did a speed workout consisting of 5 x 1K hard with 1K jog recoveries. I had planned to run each hard 1K in roughly 3:12, but shocked myself by easily running the first in 3:05 and sustaining that pace through the next four. Then, on Friday, I went to the track and ran a 10K time trial. My goal was to run 34:55, but I wound up running 34:18 and feeling great the whole way.



This week I'm grinding again, but I couldn't care less. Last week's workouts renewed my confidence that my training is right on track. I'll keep reminding myself to just do the work until my next breakthrough comes around.



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