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Don't Start Too Fast!

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Apr 30, 2009


I ran intervals on the track yesterday. On my way out of the office, when I told my colleagues where I was going, they called me crazy. Why the heck was I running intervals just nine days after shattering into a million tiny pieces at the Boston Marathon? they asked. I told them I had my reasons. And I did.



The workout I planned was the classic 5 x 1000 meters with 400m jog recoveries. As for pace, I just planned to go by feel, since I had little sense of what I would be capable of. More important to me than running a certain pace was running a well-paced workout, which for me meant running each interval at least as fast as the previous one, running all five intervals within a few seconds of the same pace, and finishing good and tired but not exhausted.



I resolved to not even look at my watch for 400m splits. The fact of the matter was that I had been traumatized by most of the interval workouts I had done in the last 12 weeks before Boston. I was always chasing very aggressive target times and often slowing way down as the workouts unfolded as a result of going too hard in pursuit of these times at the beginning. Yesterday I just wanted to treat myself to the experience of a successful interval workout, even if my performance didn't set the world on fire.



I'm happy to report that it worked out perfectly. My interval times were 3:17, 3:16, 3:15, 3:14, 3:14. While I've certainly run this workout faster before, I consider the times not bad for me considering the fact that I had run a marathon nine days earlier and I hadn't run at this intensity for several weeks. Plus, my legs were still in a state of panic in response to the sudden imposition of almost daily bike workouts beginning a week earlier. But what made me happiest about the workout was that I did not slow downI sped up!and I did it all completely by feel.



It probably seems that I am making too much of this, but I am sick of slowing down, in both workouts and races. I got more than my fill of it in my disappointing last training cycle. I plan to make speeding up a big priority in my training and racing going forward, even if that requires me to set my sights lower for a while. In the long run, though, I believe, I will perform better as a result of getting back in touch with my limits and staying within them.



A new study relevant to this topic was recently published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Scientists from James Cook University in Australia had a group of cyclists perform a series of 30K time trials and time to exhaustion rides. Specifically, eight moderately trained subjects rode a pair of 30K time trials at a freely chosen pace and a pair of rides to exhaustion at a fixed intensity intensity that matched their average power output in the time trials. All of the rides were done on separate occasions in a rested state.



All of the subjects started faster than they finished, but some slowed down more than others. Interestingly, those cyclists who started at greater than 105 percent of their average power output for the full 30K were able to ride farther than 30K in a ride to exhaustion performed at their average power output in the 30K TT's, clearly indicating that they could have finished their TT's with faster overall times if they had started a little slower.



The authors of the study concluded, "The present investigation provided indirect evidence that a fast start pacing strategy decreases finishing speed and overall performance in TT30, and increased TT performance can be achieved by selecting a starting pace no more than 5% above TTAvg."



Thanks for the reminder.



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0 to 60

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Apr 24, 2009


Yesterday I woke up having no idea where I was at 4:15 AM. Upon squinting around in the darkness for a few minutes I got my bearings and remembered that I had checked in to a hotel near JFK Airport the night before. I had 15 minutes to catch the next shuttle to the airport so I slapped my contact lenses into my head and scrambled out of my room as fast as I could.



Ten hours later I arrived back in San Diego, travel weary. But instead of driving straight home to take a nap or veg out in front of the television I drove straight to the LA fitness facility located halfway between my office and my apartment and signed up for a membership. Like all LA Fitness facilities, this one has a 25-yard lap pool, and I need easy pool access now because, as of yesterday, I am a triathlete once again.



I went for my first swim as soon as I had completed the membership paperwork. It had been about two years since my last swim, and five years since I was in any kind of swim shape. Naturally, I was curious to see what those first rust-busting strokes would feel like.



Muscle memory is real. Some people say they don't like the term because muscle cells themselves do not store memories of any kind. Well, duh. Of course the muscles don't story information about how to perform motor skills such as swimming. But there is a complete map of all of the muscles in the brain, and movement patterns are stored there. Like other forms of memory they decay with time, but they are seldom annihilated.



And so when I pushed off the wall yesterday and began cycling my arms and rotating my hips and flicking my feet as I remembered having done long ago I found that it felt familiar, but very approximate. Bits of the experience felt right, strong, fluid, efficient. These moments made me think, "Yeah, I can do this again. No problem." But at the same time chunks of the experience felt wrong, weak, clumsy, wasteful. These moments made me think, "****, I have a long way to go."



When I start swimming again after a long layoff (something I've done several times before) I ease into it. There is little to be gained from trying to get a true "workout" out of the first session, or even the second or third. Neglected muscles are being stressed in forgotten ways. Thus a mere 400 yards of thrashing is plenty to lead result in a sore wake-up the next morning. It's all about dusting off muscle memory in those early sessions, and that's best done with frequent, short sessions. You want a lot of repetition, but you don't want to swim tired.



I like starting over. While it does suck to know you suck, starting over is a time of such low expectation that I just don't worry about sucking. There's time to improve and I know that improvement never comes as rapidly as it does when you're beginning anew.



Here's my stake in the ground: 400 yards swum in 50-yard segments at an average pace of 0:53 per lap. My goal is to swim 60 minutes flat at Ironman Arizona in November. That's 4,224 yards swum uninterrupted in open water at an average pace of 42.6 seconds per 50. I'm at the base of a tall mountain whose peak is hidden in a mist, and I must say, that's a good feeling.



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Runners blow up in every marathon, but in Boston the carnage is

especially extreme, at least at the front of the pack. I think this is

the case in part because of the race's unique elevation profile and in

part because the race is uniquely competitive. A look through the

results of any recent Boston Marathon tells the whole story. Among the

first 100 finishers, there are four or five whose second-half split is

much slower than their first for every one who ran relatively even

splits. And this despite the fact that all of them were warned, I'm




I am determined not to become one of those sad statistics,

so last weekend I scoured the 2008 results for a Boston pacing role

model. I found him in Rick Clendaniel, Jr. Rick finished 99th overall

last year with a time of 2:35:28. I would be very happy to do the same

this year.  Rick's second-half split was only 57 seconds slower than

his first, which is just about perfect, since the second half contains

all of the uphills. The guy who finished one place and one second ahead

of Rick was 2:55 ahead of him at the halfway mark. That dude had to

have been at least somewhat disappointed in his final result, whereas

Rick undoubtedly achieved something very close to the fastest finish

time he was capable of that day.



Interestingly, judging by the

full breakdown of 5K splits, it appears that Rick did begin to make the

classic mistake of being sucked out too fast on the downhills leading

out of Hopkinton. He ran his first 5K in 17:50, or 5:44 per mile--some

12 seconds faster than his overall pace for the marathon. But unlike so

many others, Rick caught himself before it was too late. His second 5K

split was 18:35 (5:59/mile). His remaining splits were 18:34, 18:36,

18:23, 18:21, 18:50, and 18:11.



Those last two are particularly

noteworthy. The stretch from 30K to 35K is the toughest in the whole

race, with Heartbreak Hill and all that. Yet Rick averaged 6:03.7

through that stretch--only seven seconds per mile off his overall pace.

This means that he increased his effort level during this segment of

the race, which in turn means that he was able to. And not only that,

but after running harder from 30K to 35K than he had in any previous

segment, Rick had enough left to then run his fastest 5K split of the

entire race (with the exception of his crazy opening 5K) between 35K

and 40K. He must have passed a lot of runners there!



All in all,

it's a very impressive run. I doubt there's anything Rick could have

done differently after 5K that would have gotten him to the finish line

faster. I'd like to achieve my 2:35 with a slower opening 5K than

Rick's, but otherwise his performance is a terrific model for my race.

Studying it, I realize that I had better feel fantastic still when I

hit the hills at 16 miles, and this will require that I stick to

running 5:54-5 miles from the start no matter how super-mega-awesomely

fantastic I feel throughout the first half.


It pays to do your research.

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Mixed Results

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Apr 7, 2009


What is the first piece of advice that Boston Marathon veterans typically give to Boston Marathon newbies? "Be sure to train for the downhills. It's the downhills that will get you." Having had my first exposure to the Boston Marathon in 1983, as a spectator and support crew member, I have been aware of the insidious threat of Boston's sustained downhills for a long time. The best practical tip on preparing for this threat that I have received came from Rod DeHaven (who placed sixth in Boston in 2001), who told me that he prepared by propping up the back end of his basement treadmill and doing sustained runs of up to 17 miles on it.



Accumulating eccentric muscle damage resulting from lack of adequate preparation for downhill running has ruined three marathons that I have run in the past. I'll be damned if I let it happen yet again in Boston 13 days from now. So how have I prepared for its downhills? Until last Sunday I had done virtually nothing. That's because you really have to go out of your way to incorporate sustained downhill running into your training (it usually requires a special trip to just the right point-to-point route) and because my interpretation of the relevant science suggested to me that a single Boston-specific prep workout would do the trick.



I am refering to the research on the so-called repeated bout effect, which is the phenomenon by which a single workout that causes significant DOMS triggers physiological adaptations that greatly reduce the amount of muscle damage that is suffered if the same workout is repeated anytime within the next few weeks. Based on my understanding of this phenomenon I decided to save my "inoculation" for Boston's downhills for 15 days before the race. I would have done something more closely resembling DeHaven's 17-miler if overtraining and injury setbacks hadn't caused me to miss a couple of long runs, but as it was, I decided to perform a workout that did double duty as specific Boston prep and a final stimulus for greater fat burning and glycogen storage capacity.



I went to the fitness center in my apartment complex and propped the back end of a treadmill on a pair of 45-lb. dumbbells. I eased my way up to 6:49/mile and ran for 10 miles. I could feel my quads beginning to stiffen after covering just a quarter of that distance. After reaching 10 miles I removed the dumbbells and ran another 14 miles flat at 6:53/mile.



It was a pretty easy workout, really, but the point wasn't to induce pain during the session itself, but after. And boy did I get what I thought I wanted! The next morning I was almost as sore as I had been the morning after my last marathon. It was weird; energetically I felt as though I could run a solid set of 1K intervals at the track, but my quads were so thrashed that I had to hold onto the banister when walking downstairs. Jogging two miles that morning and another six in the afternoon brought temporary relief (isn't the analgesic effect of exercise a wonder?).



As expected, I woke up just as sore this morning. Probably a little too sore. If I could repeat this experiment I would break my specific Boston prep into at least three incremental sessions: say, 4 miles downhill, then 7, then 10. But I have no serious regrets, as the soreness has not forced me to alter anything I had planned to do in my training, and I am quite confident that I am a significantly more resilient downhill runner than I was just three days ago, thanks to the magic of the repeated bout effect.



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This morning I tried the Tabata protocol for the first time. Until today it was one of those workouts that I had told others how to do without ever having experienced it myself. I decided to give it a go this morning on my CycleOps 300PT indoor trainer because I am trying desperately to hold onto the fitness I built for the Boston Marathon despite not being able to run lately due to injury, and because I am looking ahead to my training for Ironman Arizona and wanting to establish a foundation of cycling fitness as quickly as possible, and the Tabata protocol is perfectly designed to meet both of these needs. It packs a massive aerobic and anaerobic training stimulus into a very small session, and this quality makes it well suited both to maintaining fitness during periods of reduced training volume and to developing fitness quickly in modalities in which one is relative untrained and cannot yet handle more traditional hard workouts.



The Tabata protocol is applicable to a variety of modalities, but it works best on a stationary bike. I recently bought a truly awesome indoor trainerthe aforementioned CycleOps 300 PTfor my Ironman training and store it in the second bedroom of my new apartment, so it's especially convenient for me to do this sort of workout in this particular modality.



The Tabata protocol, named after Japanese exercise physiologist Izumi Tabata, consists of 8 x 20-second intervals at maximum intensity with 10-secondthat's right, 10-secondpassive recoveries between intervals. That's two minutes and 40 seconds of all-out sprinting in a period of four minutes. There is pretty much no modification to this format that you could possibly make to increase the combined aerobic/anaerobic challenge that it imposes. Those 10-second rests are just long enough to allow one to sustain an intensity level through the 2:40 of total work that is substantially higher than one could sustain in a 2:40 maximum effort without breaks, but not long enough to make the aerobic demand any lower than it would be in a 2:40 time trial.



The coaches and trainers I have interviewed about Tabata intervals have told me that it is just about the most immiserating exercise experience you could imagine--an unmitigated sufferfest. So I was prepared to hurt. I had also been told that it takes a couple of tries to get the hang of the workout. You have to fumble through it a couple of times before you find the resistance level that allows you to perform the maximum total amount of work in the eight intervals. So I was prepared to have to make adjustments as I went.



I started with a 10-minute warm-up, then cranked up the resistance and sprinted. Or so I thought. But about three-quarters of the way through that first interval I realized that I was pacing myself and increased my power output substantially in the last 5 seconds.



The first 10-second rest brought me more relief than I had expected and left me reay to go truly all-out from the beginning of the second interval. But early in the third interval I realized I had miscalculated the appropriate resistance level. I bonked horribly, finding myself able to turn the pedals only two-thirds as fast as I had in the second interval yet hurting even more. So I reduced the resistance level during my third rest period and achieved an all-out effort in the remaining intervals by turning the cranks at a furious cadence.



I found a groove in those last five intervals. In fact, the workout turned out to be not quite as hard as I had expected it to be. Don't get me wrong--it was hard; but I had expected it to be harder than the interval workouts I am accustomed to doing, and it was not. In retrospect I'm not surpised. Tabata intervals are practiced and prescribed mostly by gym exercisers who know nothing of the suffering that occurs in your typical track workout. So for them, Tabata is like being fileted alive. For endurance athletes it's just another workout.



Except not quite. Few endurance athletes ever combine all-out sprint intervals with very short rest periods. After completing my first Tabata session this morning I felt as hollow-legged, oxygen-starved, and light-headed, and was sweating as profusely, as I do after the most brutal track session, but the whole **** workout had lasted only 15 minutes!



In the study that made the workout that bears his name famous, Izumi Tabata found that six weeks of the protocol increased the VO2max of trained subjects by 14 percent and increased their anaerobic capacity by 28 percent. I hope that it works half as well for me, but I'm not exactly sure how I will be able to judge how well it is working. Perhaps, if I still run sub-2:40 in Boston despite running fewer than 50 miles in the last 25 days preceding it, I will be able to credit Tabata!



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