Monday, November 9, 2009

the limiting factor

Disclaimer: Parts of this post are well-supported by empirical evidence and other parts I'd call "reasonable conclusions". But I make no claims regarding the science behind any of it.

We got started shortly after Mayor Bloomberg's short speech in which he referred to the race as: The World's Greatest Sporting Event. I immediately thought of how the BAA has labeled Boston -- which is already close to filling up for 2010, by the way -- as the "most prestigious annual marathon" and the "premier distance race in the world". I suppose all three titles could be correct. It's a fun discussion anyway.

Mile one was a crawl (7:30) but I was okay with it for several reasons: First, well, it would've been terribly dumb to panic after mile one of a marathon. Second, it's the hardest part of the course -- up and over the Verrazano-Narrows. Third, as with any big field, we were packed tight and there was jostling and bottlenecks. Finally, I estimated that it had taken me 20-30 seconds to reach the starting line and that my split was closer to 7:00 flat (more on that later).

Assuming I did a 7:00, therefore, I figured I'd run the next six at a 6:25 pace to make up the time, and then I could settle into my 6:30 overall goal pace. This worked beautifully, and I felt great. There were several rather windy spots, and more concrete than I was comfortable with, but when are marathons ever ideal? Onward.

The next eight miles (8 - 15) were what has become my typical mid-marathon frustration: I feel strong and relaxed and the 6:30 pace feels sort of silly. All I want to do is pick up the pace and blow through the next five miles -- but I can't. Because it's a marathon. And I have to be "strategic" and "mentally tough" which simply means: Running considerably slower than how I like to run.

Mile 16: The Queensboro Bridge -- a decent climb, very windy, and lots of concrete, so I consciously dialed it down a little. I was also toying with the idea of stopping for a pee break but eventually decided against it. The course then turns right and heads downhill for a bit so I picked it up for 17 & 18 (roughly 6:20s) and then settled back to 6:30s for 19 & 20. As I ran past the clock at the end of mile 20, it read 2:10:30, and I thought: Perfect! If it took me 20-30 seconds to reach the starting line, then I was at most ten seconds below my target time of 2:10:00 for the first twenty.

In other words, after 20 miles I was well-positioned for a 2:50 finish. And the rest of this post is my explanation as to why I averaged 7:25 per mile over the final 6.2...

When muscles contract they do not use all of their fibers to actually do the work. In fact, many training guides and fitness studies claim that during sustained running, the percentage of activated motor units out of the total available pool is generally under 30%. Furthermore, the "active" pool continuously changes during extended activity. In other words, the motor units are sort of like hockey players coming in and out of the game as they cycle between tired and rested states.

At the same time, not all muscle fibers are created equal. One way of categorizing them is as "slow twitch" (good at sustained aerobic activity) and "fast twitch" (good at short, anaerobic bursts of power). It's actually more complicated than that but the slow and fast twitch categories are probably sufficient for this discussion.

The situation becomes more interesting as some motor units go beyond being just "tired"; during activities like the marathon, many of the muscle fibers suffer damage -- the cell membranes actually rupture. And these crippled motor units are no longer part of the total available pool. In the hockey metaphor, those players have been knocked out of the game. They aren't on the ice, and they aren't even resting on the bench. They are injured and the coach can't use them for a line change.

Now, running a 6:30 mile obviously places more of a demand on the fast twitch fibers than running a 7:25 mile does, although both require a blend of both types. Similarly, a 5:30 mile puts even more of a demand on fast twitch fibers than a 6:30 mile does. My theory is that during the race I basically discovered the weakest part of my lower body in terms of the fast twitch fiber pool: My calf muscles. Not my quads, glutes, hamstrings, tibialis anterior (near the shin), or hip flexors -- which are all important -- but my calves. In other words, I believe that through cellular damage, I reduced the total available pool of fast twitch motor units to the point where I no longer had the explosive power needed to run faster than a 7:25 mile.

This isn't a cramp in the traditional sense although that is what I originally called it. When I did try to accelerate into the 6:30 - 7:00 range, all of the muscles in my legs responded -- except for my calves. What they did was spasm uncontrollably and feel as if they were going to seize up permanently. As soon as I slowed down, the sensation rapidly went away. And it's not like my calves weren't able to do any work at all; I was able to finish the race at a 7:30 pace and even walk for 2+ miles afterwards (which requires at least a small contribution from the calf muscles). So I still had a decent pool of slow twitch motor units available and a minimal amount of fast twitch as well. But whenever I tried to accelerate towards 6:30 in the last six miles, I was effectively asking my calves to perform at an intensity that the remaining fast twitch motor unit pool could not support.

The sensation also isn't fatigue in the traditional sense. At least not how I think of it. I became very familiar with old-fashioned fatigue in the 2001 Toronto Marathon. In the last four miles of that race I was completely spent. I wasn't in pain, I didn't have cramps, and my leg muscles weren't refusing to work past any particular intensity. I was just thoroughly exhausted and wanted nothing more than to stop running. Every step was a chore. At no point during NYC did I feel an overwhelming urge to stop. In fact, I really really wanted to run faster and continually tried to do so.

How should I fix this? I have two basic ideas, both of which (of course) seem absurdly obvious in hindsight. First, lose as much weight as possible without adversely affecting my overall fitness. Let's say, for example, that I went into NYC weighing 143 lbs instead of my current 148. Carrying even five extra pounds over 26 miles surely represents a considerable amount of non-essential motor unit activation, a portion of which leads to cell rupture and therefore premature removal from the game. Without that weight my calves would have been able to sustain a 6:30 pace for a longer duration, all other things being equal. I can easily increase my training volume, but unfortunately losing 5 - 10 lbs probably entails eliminating some of the junk that I like to eat. That's sort of a bummer because, as a distance runner, I always viewed eating anything in sight as an irrevocable boon.

Second, increase the pool of fast-twitch motor units in my calves, and, if possible, reduce the amount of motor output required by my calves at any given speed. This means: Make my calves stronger and make my stride more efficient. My remedy here is to add short hill sprints and one-legged jumping to my training cycle. In the latter, you stand on one foot and continuously jump onto and down from a curb or a low step for 30 seconds, never letting your "up" foot touch the ground.

To summarize: Eat better, run more, and get stronger. Simple, right? Right. Anyway, thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

oh good... another marathon

Some pre-race musings...

1) For more than a year now I've been thinking that NYC is a solid PR course, but a sub-2:50 buddy of mine recently informed me: Not so much. Just compare the winning times to other races with world-class fields.

2) Gebrselassie's world-record marathon pace was just under 4:44 per mile. That's sub-71 for 400 meters, 105 times in a row. Oi.

3) Alex Rodriguez is the biggest douche in professional sports. David Ortiz is every bit as much of a fraud, he's just not a complete dick about it. And I'm now a huge Cliff Lee fan.

4) It would be really cool to run with Joan Benoit Samuelson. Even for a little bit.

5) I don't get runners who say that they like hills. Even the best hill runners in the world slow down when they run up an incline. Why would anyone prefer slow running to fast running?

6) I need to lose five pounds. Then I'll be fast. Or maybe not.

7) Current forecast: Mid 50s, cloudy, 40% chance of rain. Perfect!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

extended "tempo"

Morning workout: 20 min warm-up followed by 8.2 miles in 48:55 (5:58 per mile), all on the track. Very cool but no breeze. The goal here was to improve LTVO2 as outlined in the Pfitzinger article. LT velocity is approximately half-marathon race pace which I think is right around 6:00 per mile at this point.

The 6:00 came from using McMillan's "Equivalent Performance" tool, which calculates a 17:00 5K as equivalent to a 1:18:35 half-marathon. On an encouraging note, the marathon equivalent for the same 5K is 2:45:44, but I certainly have no intention of starting NYC at a 6:20 pace. Which is now only 18 days away.

Friday, October 9, 2009

early morning tempo

Up at 5:30, forced down some coffee, read about the dismal Sox performance (Lowell is useless in the field now), then out to the exquisite Walpole HS track. The workout: 5.6K tempo, 3:30 jog recovery, then another 5.6K tempo.

Perfect running conditions -- gotta love that, but still I had to de-shirt for the second half because I'm such a sweat generator. The tempo splits were 20:22 (5:51.2 per mile) and 20:27 (5:52.6). According to Daniels' VDOT chart my tempo pace should be 5:54 - 5:59 so, yeah, a tad too fast.

I feel like I'm still headed for a sub-2:50 at NYC, but who knows... I've felt this way on several prior occasions and failed. The 10/4 race was supposed to be my final tune-up but now I'm considering the Canton 10K on 10/25. It's a hilly course so if I can do reasonably well there it would be a great confidence builder.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

10/4 & 10/7

10/4 -- Five mile race in 28:50, 3rd overall, 1st in AG. I had no expectations for this because the previous eight days constituted my most demanding stretch of training all year. The course is flat but it got rather warm and humid right before the start. Furthermore, all of the standing around at the starting line basically ruined any warm-up benefits. As a result, I went out comfortably hard and then shut it down for the last three miles. "Shut it down" means going from a 5:33 pace to a 5:55 pace. This was entirely by design; if I tapered, if the weather had cooperated, and if the race started on time, I think a sub-28 would have been possible. But none of that stuff happened.

10/7 -- 24 min easy to the WHS track, 12 laps in lane 5 alternating easy and 200m accelerations, 20 min easy to home. Still have a little cumulative tiredness in the legs but the track work felt great.

Monday, September 28, 2009

recent races

9/26/09 -- Medfield Day 5K -- 2nd place, 17:29

I was a little disappointed with the time until two people with GPS watches measured it at 3.17 miles. Which means roughly 17:06 on an accurate course. Which means things are progressing nicely.

9/27/09 -- Nahant 30K -- 8th place, 1:57:02

I was happy with the overall result but truly disgusted with my inability to stick to any sort of plan. I did this race because my schedule called for a 20 mile run and I didn't feel like doing it alone.

Went out in 6:14, which was fine, but then I did:  6:03, 6:03, 5:50, 5:47, 5:51, 6:04 -- this on a course that had several steep hills.

In other words, way too fast for my current level of fitness, on that sort of course, right after a 5K. Real discomfort set in shortly after the 12 mile mark and I struggled home at a 6:38 pace for the last 6+ mi (6:17 avg for the day).

I'm an idiot.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

finally a good weekend

Yesterday was this race but, more importantly, I got up at 6am today, had some coffee, and then ran 15 miles in 1:44 flat. It felt soo easy. The 22:16 four miler was really only 3.9 so I'm calling it a 22:50. On the other hand, the course has three decent hills so I'm guessing I could have been around 22:40 on a flat, accurate course.

That's nowhere near peak condition but I'm happy with the progress. VERY pleased with the 15 this morning -- the first few miles were 7:15 - 7:20, then I did a bunch of 7:00s, mixed in a couple 6:30s, backed off a little, and did the last mile in an even 6:00. No discomfort, no tightness in the right lower calf, all good.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

starts and stops

So I slogged my way through the Walpole Labor Day 10K yesterday, 7th place, 38:29. This was sort of my perfect storm for a slow time: Still recovering from nasty speedwork two days earlier, a hilly course that runs long (somebody said 6.4 but that is probably overstating it), and had just spent six hours in the car driving to Maine and back. The good news is that I feel fine today and have a sense that I'm ready to leave the current fitness plateau behind. Any day now...

Friday, July 24, 2009

parts of week 9 and 10

7/23 - 10 min (E) + 6x400 (R) + 10 min (E)
7/22 - 30 min (E)
7/21 - 6 miles (E)
7/20 - off
7/19 - 10 miles (E)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

4/4 - 4/7

4/7 - 20 min (E) + 6x400 (R) + 20 min (E)
4/6 - 5 miles (E) w/striders
4/5 - off
4/4 - 15 miles (E)

Did last night's quarters a little too fast, sore tendons today. Stupid. I think I'm getting dumber each day. In fact, I know I am. I read an article last week about how mental faculty peaks at age 22 - 27 and, after that, our brains become more useless every day. Yay.

Friday, April 3, 2009

3/23 - 4/2

4/2 - 6 miles E
3/31 - 6 miles E
3/29 - 6 miles E
3/28 - 40 min fartlek
3/27 - 30 min E
3/25 - 6 miles E
3/23 - 30 min E

Monday, March 23, 2009

my everyday shoe


Puma Complete Infinitus

These took some getting used to, but now I really like this shoe: Lightweight, nice flexibility, and just enough cushioning for normal asphalt sessions. They're too heavy for speedwork or racing (even marathons, I think) but otherwise a good all-around trainer. A few months ago I decided to venture out of the Asics/Nike/Adidas world and so far it's working.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

3/13 - 3/21

3/21 - 10 miles E
3/19 - 39 min E
3/17 - 32 min E
3/15 - 30 min E
3/13 - 30 min E

Sunday, March 8, 2009

ok so the time off was a little long

I'm back into a regular training routine, more or less. Also I've gone back to work for my previous employer (Caritas Christi). This means much less on-call duty (and fewer calls even when I have the pager). The bad news: I haven't done legitimate speedwork in six months.