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Learning to endure

21 December, 2010

The capacity to suffer is trainable

This is one of the nuggets I took away from Matt Fitzgerald’s latest book Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel, which is so chock-full of aphoristic wisdom that I feel as though I’m still trying to get a handle on it. The above quote represents the flipside of and the solution to the issue I raised after listening to Noakes on Marathon Talk just a couple of weeks ago (Fitzgerald adopts the central governor theory once again in his approach to training). The essence of this book seems to be that as we gain more experience as runners we should put more trust in what our body tells us, rather than slavishly adhering to a detailed plan. The author has finally renounced off-the-shelf training plans in favour of “winging it”. I like this book for exactly this reason — the only time I tried to stick to a plan the results were so disastrous that I almost stopped running entirely, and didn’t race for over a year. Since then, I’ve instinctively been “running by feel”.

In contrast to Brain Training for Runners, Fitzgerald drops the idea that we can improve performance by making conscious adaptations to our stride (except for certain injuries, i.e. those that are caused either by shoes or by muscular imbalances/poor habits in our non-running life), reverting to the more traditional idea that our bodies will self-select the most efficient patterns of neural firing that make up the stride, that we can be the most “beautiful runner” we can be only by running — with appropriate amounts of volume, intensity, periodization — but lots of running. This is a good thing as I’ve totally failed to implement any of his proprioceptive cues in Brain Training on a regular basis. Even though Fitzgerald suggests stride manipulation might be more worthwhile for elite runners than the mid-pack, I can’t think of even one for whom it has recently worked. Not Ritzenhein, not Jen Rhines, not Paige Higgins.

His argument (or one of them) is that the variation in not only the anatomy, but also the physiology and psychology of individual runners is so great that trying to adopt a one-size-fits-all plan is futile. That said, it’s not being suggested that we start making up brand-new workouts from scratch — coaches who may vehemently disagree on various approaches to what they do, broadly set the same workouts, be they 12×400, 5x1k, tempo runs, and so on, as a result of generations of trial-and-error that we’d be foolish to ignore. Fitzgerald specifically recommends the McMillan calculator, which I’ve been using myself for some time, though I think he has it slightly wrong when he suggests (p.152) that you plug in a goal race time, and use the range of paces as a guide, starting with the slower end of the range and building toward the faster end as the race approaches. Apart from the fact that McMillan says you plug in a recent race time (not the goal) and use the range as a guide, this seems wrong because either you’re running by feel or you’re running to beat the clock. Unless of course you’re using the clock to verify effort/fatigue levels, which seems sensible to me — but again, McMillan’s data is not based on what you want to race, but rather what you already have raced.

The discussion on fatigue I also found to be fascinating. New to me is the idea that running while fatigued, no matter how slow (almost),  is critical to prompting positive adaptations, which implies that morning-after-the-night-before recovery jogs are about more than just increasing circulation to tired and recovering muscles. Also on fatigue, the author describes some of the research on stride entropy — a measure of stride-to-stride variation and how each successive stride looks more like the previous one as exhaustion sets in and the running ‘system(s)’ becomes increasingly constrained (i.e. different muscles ‘fail’, or have a reduced range-of-motion) — the feeling of which I call “clunky”. Thus, somebody who knows what your stride usually looks like should, by paying close attention, be able to detect when you are fatigued. The difference between fatigued running that we deem quality rather than junk is what we carry over in fatigue from day-to-day and week-to-week.

Failing to heed the ongoing signs of fatigue, suggests Fitzgerald, will result in not only diminished enjoyment, but also poor results. The final section of the book takes a look at the psychology of running, including how to usefully harness emotions that might easily be labelled negative. Optimal performance, apparently, is achieved by the runner who is happy and confident. What brings happiness and confidence? Learning to trust what the body tells us with the aid of objective data, such as monitoring the naturally-selected pace, and affective feedback, while cultivating psychological momentum (the usefulness of superstition, for example). I’m still digesting this last section, it’s fascinating stuff.

This is one of the most useful running books (or perhaps merely the most congruent with my own training), and it’s a must-read for runners who, like me, go with a minimal coaching approach. My main gripe is that it doesn’t contain an index. This seems inexcusable for such a complex subject, even though the intention may be to simplify it.

Apparently there is not much high-intensity training happening over the holidays (what’s wrong with people?!), so I’m using the opportunity to venture northwards of 80km. This week I’m hoping to reach 85km, and if that goes well then next week I will try to go above 90km.

Yesterday: 0′-0km

Today: 60′ (14km).

One Comment leave one →
  1. Ray permalink
    21 December, 2010 10:40 pm

    Fascinating – thanks. I’m just getting back to it with my 2nd run back since NFEC. Tomorrow will be an intense snowshoe run that I’m looking forward to 🙂 Happy Holidays.

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