Redesigning Distance

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Day #63: We work hard to craft great speed workouts, but neglect creating intentional distance courses

I remember as a coach sitting down at the drawing board and creating speed workouts with great meticulousness. Whether it was a fartlek run, hill repeats or – best of all for the sadistic coach:) – intervals on the track, I went to great lengths to intentionally design workouts. The fartlek run, for example, despite being “speed play” was choreographed down to the last detail. The run would begin with a mile warm-up, then the fun would begin. At such and such cross-street the tempo was on and would go for a minute. After a minute’s recovery, a two minute uptempo would just happen to finish at the base of “heartbreak hill.” The runners would look quizically at me and our other coach, as we shared winks and refrained smiles. The next recovery was a 2-minute loop which wrapped right back to the base of the hill. And then the real work began. 3, 4, 5 minute repeats on the incline.

Then there were those dreamed-of track workouts. We coaches take these quite seriously and we have very specific intent in designing them and in tweaking them even during the workout itself. A favorite of mine was the “ladder.” Intended to bring the runner to the point of exhaustion without knowing it, ladders teach runners survival skills on the track. They encourage running gracefully during all phases of the track race and they teach runners to break races down into doable parts. This last lesson has always been a key principle to me: the race taken as a whole is daunting and can be depressing; break the goal down into 100 meter pieces, into turns and groups of laps and the runner sees that she can accomplish each bit and, finally, the entire task.

Another favorite workout my coaches used to craft for me and my buddies was “Wheels.” All of the runners I have coached since have benefited from these cruel intervals. A “wheel” is a circuit of training, with a central point, the hub of the wheel, at which you begin each “spoke.” Typically, one wheel has 4 spokes. Surveying a broad grassy field from a picnic table or prominent tree for a hub, we looked for endpoints for each spoke which had undulating cross-country-esque footing, maybe a gentle gradient, etc. – whatever situation we wanted to mimic for upcoming races. Runners would cruise out to the end of the spokes at a given tempo, and then the jog back to the hub was the recovery. Without a break upon returning to the hub, it was off to complete the next spoke — and on and on until one “wheel” was completed. Often, we would do 3 wheels in a workout. Sometimes 4.

Yet when it comes to distance, we often neglect the design in the course. Is it because we cannot control the variables of the roads? Are we, us coaches, too exhausted to design distance with specificity after all of our masterful speed workouts? Or do we and our runners actually need to play at our running! Is it that we must not  break down every component of the training or we lose the joy of the thing. The beautiful simplicity of this running life.

There is something magical about the long distance training run – something that eludes the training itself. It is the imaginary world of play for the mature distance runner. She who has thought through too many problems today and requires the recovery of soul offered to her on the roads and trails.

So, there is good reason that we do not map out every component of the long run. But I will throw in my two cents that it will pay dividends to think from time to time about how you can eek out just a bit more from your next 15-miler. Oops! There I go again – forgetting to play.

Keep keeping on…

~Coach Reed