Friday, March 25, 2011

Learning to Run

As a kid, I spent a good deal of time swimming and biking. I was never much of a runner, though. It was not a problem growing up, but also kept me from participating in most running sports (track and cross country mostly, though it also led me to avoid considering triathlons too). Since I started triathlons, I realized that I need to concentrate a lot more on running. I thought I could fake it by biking faster! Then I could just 'hang on' during the run. Do I really need to point out how frustrating it was to get passed on the run by everyone I'd blown by on the bike? I knew this was not going to make me very competitive!

The Lydiard Method
Enter the Lydiard method. I was introduced to the Lydiard method through Beginner Triathlete, a great site for people getting into the sport. Basically, the Lydiard method is composed of a pyramid of training, with aerobic base work being the base of the pyramid, eventually getting to smaller amounts of progressively harder runs and having the hardest runs at the top of the pyramid, in very limited amounts. All of this is surrounded by the base aerobic runs throughout the rest of the week. The book I read was Healthy Intelligent Training: The Proven Principles of Arthur Lydiard. It takes the Lydiard principles, and expands on them with modern training methods. It also explains why the methods work.

Me holding my finisher's medal
 For my training so far, I have spent the past year working on my aerobic base. I started with short runs of around 2-3 miles (which was difficult at the beginning!). Through the year, I upped my mileage and frequency pretty conservatively. Eventually, I decided the best way to build my base was to train for a marathon by using the novice plan from Hal Higdon. The plan was a little aggressive, but by making sure I didn't stress my body too much I was able to put in the suggested mileage and even added an extra 'active recovery' run day. All of this culminated in me racing the 2011 Sedona Marathon in a respectable time of 4:30 (83/168). For a normal marathon this would be considered slow, but the Sedona Marathon includes about 2100 feet of climbing and about 10 miles of running on a dirt road.
Recently, I've begun doing speed work. This is where I'm diverging from the Lydiard method a bit. The pyramid is the same, but I'm doing it in reverse (so-called "reverse periodization"). My coaching advisor introduced me to it and said he's had good results with other athletes. It's been helping me a lot, and my times are getting faster. Since I don't really do stand-along road races, I can only go by my training runs or runs in a triathlon. Last year, my best tri runs were around 8:15-8:30/mile. Now my shorter (5 mile) training runs can easily hit 8:00/mile, and I'm hoping for around 7:00/mile for my next race with an eventual 10K (6.2 mile) time of 6:30/mile. I've only just begun the speed work, so the majority of the improvement have been from the base work.

Getting started
For anyone looking to start running, I strongly recommend using Lydiard's approach to training. If you have a difficult time running or have delicate knees, start with equal run-walk intervals (1 min each) and use these as you build time and distance. Over time, increase the run interval times until you can run the whole time. Spend a good deal of time working on your base, and build it up to 30+ miles per week (mpw) spread over 5-6 days. I usually do 2 short runs (5 miles each), 1 medium run (10 miles), one long run (15 miles) along with an active recovery run (3-4 miles, very easy pace). Stay at this level for a couple of months (or keep growing it) before starting ANY speed work. The total time could easily be 6-9 months of base work, maybe more. Yes, it takes time and yes, it is work. That is part of taking up a sport and trying to get good at it. The best idea is to make it part of your routine (even 20-30 minutes a day in the morning, over lunch or in the evening is fine). It all adds up, more quickly than you think.

Introducing Speed Work
Speed work is NOT required to get faster (up to a point)! Base work builds the muscles, strengthens the joints and grows the capillaries and mitochondria required for efficient aerobic exercise. When you start the speed work, start with 'strides' (10-15 seconds of faster-paced running, then slowing back down to a moderate pace). Over the course of a few weeks, you should be able to do this every mile or so a couple of runs per week. Turn one of your short runs into the speed-work day. After a 10-15 minute warm-up, run at a higher pace for a few minutes, then rest for a couple of minutes. Build on this slowly until the faster portion of the interval is up to 10 minutes. Move your way up the pyramid, but make sure to do a lot of easy aerobic running the other days.

Don't be afraid to run a 5K or 10K at some point to mark your progress. Really, you can run them any time you feel like it, but try not to overdo it. Remember there are many things outside of your control that affect your speed. Hills, heat, amount of sleep, fatigue, etc. If you have a representative race pace, you can plug it in the to McMillan running calculator to find out what are appropriate training times (it's not necessary to enter your e-mail address).

Notes on running form
Running can be hard on your body. It puts a lot of pressure on your joints and causes strain on your muscles. There are ways to mitigate this, especially important for new runners. For seasoned runners who have been running their whole lives, the muscles and joints have often strengthened enough that they can handle the pounding. For people like me, who started running later in life, here are some tips to keep you running for a long time.
  • Take short strides. This will keep you from overstriding and hitting heel first. The heel strike tends to be harder on the body. If you've run this way all your life, that's fine but if you're just getting into running, it's easier on your body to land with the mid-foot. Short strides help accomplish this.
  • The foot should make contact with the ground under your center of gravity. Shorter strides will help with this.
  • Relax your lower leg. Pretty much everything from the knee down should be strong but relaxed. I've found that if my knee is hurting, relaxing my lower leg and making a slight adjustment to the foot angle will take care of the pain.
  • If you feel pain in part of your leg or hip, slow down and see if the pain goes away. Sometimes during the first mile I will feel random pains in my knee or ankle that goes away shortly. If you have a sharp pain that doesn't go away, stop running and make sure nothing has been damaged. As you run more, you'll learn to notice the difference between the types of pain.
  • Your cardiovascular system adapts more quickly than your joints. You may feel great, and feel like you can go faster, but don't push yourself too hard. Running faster helps your running form, but increasing intensity too fast, too soon will cause injuries.
"Run Less, Run Faster"?
There are lots of programs out there purporting to help people run faster while putting in fewer miles. What a great promise! I enjoy running, but I'd love to spend less time in the base portion and more time 'building speed!' These programs work for some people - notably people who have been running a lot for a long time. Why do they work for these people? Because they already have a sufficient running base. Often times, they have also neglected speed work to some degree, so they have a lot of untapped potential. If you haven't been running for many years, it's more a recipe to get hurt than a way to get faster.

Enjoy your running
I'm not an expert by any means. I'm only reporting what has been working for me and others I've been corresponding with. Best of luck, there are lots of resources on the Internet regarding running, running form, pacing, etc. I will write more as time allows. For a more in-depth look, the book mentioned earlier is a great resource. There are many other great books, but there are no real shortcuts. Just run, enjoy the time you are doing it, and enjoy the outdoors. Be careful, you just might start to like it!

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