I was recently talking to a friend (who is himself no stranger to physical conditioning as a retired army Colonel with a son who played college football….they are one of those families where everyone is successfully going after whatever they want out of life and it has been a pleasure to get to know them!) and he was kindly asking about my marathon training and upcoming races. As we talked about pacing for the marathon, how the pace feels slow for the first few miles and you have to hold back, he asked “how do you do that?” and without thinking I answered “that is what the training is for.”
It was one of those moments, when you don’t really know that you knew that until it is said. I have been told it many times, the long runs and the shorter distance races are about preparing for the culmination of the training – in this case the marathon. But I didn’t know that I KNEW that until it was said.
It is true that the training is about physical conditioning and accumulating miles on the legs but it is also where you try things out, and learn your lessons. Sometimes they are the same lessons..over and over…because we either forget or didn’t learn it properly the first time and other times they are new lessons. Even a bad run, has something to teach you – some may say more than a good one! My coach often uses the analogy of drops into a bucket….each training session is a drop, as long as you are keeping up with the drops eventually the bucket will be full…but maybe the drops that look like they are going into the bucket and then miss at the last minute are important too!
This brings me to the topic of progression runs. There is a general understanding within distance running that the most efficient (read fastest) way to run is with a negative split. This means that the second half of your race is faster than the first half. So you may think, great go do that! But it is easier said than done. Especially with my predisposition to the alternative go out hard (like a screaming banshee and crawl to the finish line) approach. I attempted my first progression run in training almost exactly a year ago. The paces were prescribed and it was supposed to look something like this.
6 mile w/u
3 miles @ 8:40/mi
3 miles @ 8:38/mi
3 miles @ 8:34/mi
6 miles @ 8:30/mi
1 mile w/d
What it actually looked like was – IT Band pain starting at mile 17 and stops to stretch at increasing intervals for the remainder of the run. Not fun. Not progressive.
During my winter training I had a long run that specified 5 x 5 mins at race pace during the 3 hr run. I admit that I wimped out on this one. The route was deliberately hilly (as the marathon would be!) and I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the pace even for 5 minute sections.
But during this marathon cycle something quite magical has happened. I have grown to like, maybe even excel at the progression run. It all started with a long run that specified the last 30 minutes at 10k pace. When I first saw the workout, I’m pretty sure I went through the 5 stages of grief…Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. I formulated a plan to start slow and pick up the pace at intervals reaching the final 30 minutes at 10k pace. Unwittingly I had signed up to a progression run! I enjoyed the feeling of those pace pickups and the surprising strength that I felt so much that I have applied the progression run to pretty much every long run since.
So that is what the training is for. It’s for trying things you don’t know if you can do, over and over until they click. It’s for making the mistakes and building the confidence for race day.