The Most Important Lesson


There is one statistic I don’t have access to. That is the number of words read per kilometre. When it comes to running, or for the matter anything that interests me, I want to learn and know more, more, more. I’m pretty sure I’ve racked up thousands, perhaps millions of words since I started running in May 2013.

Then there’s the real life teachers. I don’t think I have met another runner that wasn’t willing to be helpful. I can speak only for my running circle. There are Boston qualifiers, there are ultra marathoners. There are n00bs like me.  There’s leaders and mentors. Among all these levels of expertise is one common trait. The willingness to mentor, encourage and share. I suspect this is common in most running crews. These mentors and leaders can help navigate through the deluge of informations out there.

And probably most important there is the teacher of experience. You can read all about glycogen depletion, point of deflection and the oft mentioned lactate threshold. But until you have morale destroying experience of hitting the wall, these concepts have no real context. There’s descriptions, strategies and advice. And it is helpful. It is not as helpful as the first time you “figure it out”. And this is where we start to approach, what I think is the most important lesson. But wait, there’s more.

One of the unintended consequences of all this knowledge and information is confusion.

I recently Googled “Tempo Run”. I wanted more formal descriptions of terms that get thrown around my running plan. What I found is no two answers are same. And some are contradictory. I tried “Steady Run”. Google joyfully spit back a gazillion results. No two of them the same. Many of the answers were by people very qualified. One particular answer was given by a sports scientist who runs marathons. His answer was completely different from a well respected coach who successfully trained world class elite runners. Asking experienced runners yields more consistent answers. Yet little consensus. And sometimes  some of this advise be it science or anecdote conflicts with what I experienced. I must be careful and point out one thing. There is some consensus. The areas of consensus are backed by physics and not some theoretical science. One particular piece of advice you will read about and hear is starting a race too fast. Another clear cut piece of advice. Don’t rest enough and you will get injured. And the second most important lesson I’ve learned. You can’t run beyond your fitness level. More on this later.

What to do?

The answer is simple. Trial and error. Pay the most attention to the advice that is consistent and makes sense. Other than that you will have to spend time figuring it out. Take the idea of the tempo run. Most resources agree this run is about lactate threshold. And that’s about where the agreement ends. Exactly how do you run just below your lactate threshold? How much time to you spend running a tempo. what is the percentage of time you should train at this level? There’s blood tests, the ‘can you talk’ test, and the heart rate measurement test. Where do you turn for the answer?

There is no correct answer for all individuals or situations. This is important to realize. I’ve read many training plans. And I’ve read about many training plans. I always wonder who the plan was created for. Who is the gold standard demographic. A twenty year old who did track in university is going to need a different marathon plan than the 40 or 50 something that has took up running in the last two years, a guy like me. You will get a better tailored plan by going with a personal coach. It will cost  you. And it might be a perfect solution for some people.

Back to trail and error. You have a sea of conflicting information for the mythical generic runner. This is why trail and error is important. It might seem inefficient. And it is if you don’t pay attention to what you are doing and more important what you have done. In short, learn what works well for you, and what doesn’t. I’ve found that running my tempo runs really fast for about 5k to 6k works best for me. To be more precise, it works best for me where I am in terms of fitness and experience. When I tried early in my running experiences to run these distances fast I couldn’t finish without being exhausted. And it’s no coincidence I tended be injured often when I did this. That’s on the micro level. When you look at the big picture I’ve found the most important lesson is you have to find what works for you. There’s guidance and knowledge out there. But nothing can take the place of hands on learning. You are an  individual and your training will have to be individual.

Once you have an idea what works and what does’t it becomes easier to plan. A plan has to have an achievable, realistic and measurable goal. This is goal setting 101. Once you have your goal and plan you have to fill the plan with process.  Goals are useless and irrelevant without a good process. In fact to be more precise, poor processes are better than no process at all.

I consider any long run completed a success. I do believe some runs are more successful than others. And to date my most successful run was the Bluenose Half Marathon. To run successfully again like this I have to look at what I did and didn’t do prior to the race. And this is where I find data invaluable. I use Smashrun Pro to collect and slice and dice my running data. I have no affiliation with Smashrun Pro but I higly recommend it.  Two things jump out at me from the period prior to the race. One is the percentage of time I spent running in the aerobic heart rate zone. The second and most telling metric is the sheer amount of mileage. The race was in May. My mileage for April is the second highest month ever. The only other month that surpasses it is August. And that was during full marathon training. It was only about 10 k more than April.

It’s clear to me the two things that work best for me is mileage and spending time in the aerobic heart rate zone. I can compare these numbers with my recent marathon. The amount of mileage was more than previous, but not relatively more. And  spent more time in the recovery zone than I did previously. And this makes sense. I haven’t been running long. I have to build on my fitness level. My training now will involve more mileage and more of it aerobically.

Two inescapable facts of training. You have to find what works for you .You can’t run beyond your level of fitness. Intertwined and inseparable facts.

The most important lesson is simply finding what works and doesn’t work for you.