Laying the Foundation, Easily
Alright, so you’re not really focusing on the fundamentals right now. Right now the focus is to get through the last few weeks of marathon specific work so you can pull the release valve and begin to taper and sharpen for race day. And whatever focus you do have right now is blurred by the fatigue and callusing of miles.
But after you’ve raced your heart out, after you’ve endured the self imposed respite from the training, you’ll begin again—you know you will—and you’ll set about to prepare for the next big thing—whatever it may be. How do you set up your base training?
Bob Kennedy, one of the US’s best ever on the track, suggested that when we seek improvement, we should focus on one thing per year. Just one thing. That way, we can better keep our “eye on the ball.” Just one thing.
The fundamental, or base period of training is the best time to practice something new. Your mileage consists of mostly easy running, with some higher end aerobic efforts sprinkled throughout, and perhaps alternated with sets of strides on the track or light fartlek on the roads. On occasion, you pop into a low-key weekend 5K because it’s fun.
This next fundamental block, try focusing on running relaxed. Try making all your miles, all your efforts, as relaxed as possible and as effortless as possible. Why? For several reasons, but primarily to get you to focus on that one thing, but the one thing that is so important it benefits almost all the other aspects of your running.
Watch a video of the very best elite athletes racing on the track or roads. No matter how fast they’re going, most often even up to the very last meters, they appear to be entirely, completely relaxed. Even sprinters. They’re running at speeds most of us can barely attain on a bicycle, and you can still see their facial muscles bouncing with each step.
Running relaxed is key to running fast. When you are relaxed, in body and in mind, you use less energy. And by using less energy, several things happen. You run faster. You have fewer injuries. You can run more. And, most importantly, you enjoy it more.
During the next run, see how relaxed you are. Likely, when the pace hots up a bit, your shoulders come up around your ears, and your arms stab the air more. Take a breath and relax everything. The winningest coach ever in the NCAA, John McDonnell, used to prompt his runners to “check your instruments.” And he didn’t mean your watch. So, check your instruments.
What are some ways you can practice this? Many ways, but there are a few simple suggestions I’ve offered to many in my groups over the years and the results are invariably positive.
Start your runs slower.
Yeah, even on your easy days or recovery days. Make the first 10, 12 or even 20 minutes the warm up. This is when you go “glacially slow” and let your body warm up as it wants to, rather than when you want it to. The slower you go initially, the more relaxed you’ll be, and for longer. When I lived in Albuquerque, I had the chance to watch a group of Kenyans training on a pretty regular basis. When they did their warm ups, even when they were just starting their easy runs, often times they were moving at paces that were slow enough that I—or many of us—could have easily kept up. Seriously. 9-10 minutes a mile for a mile or more. They looked as if they were going just faster than a walk. And for guys who were racing marathons at a little over 5 minutes per mile, that’s a substantial difference. (Of course, as soon as they began to get rolling, we’d be out the back door within a matter of steps, wouldn’t we.) At first it will feel a little awkward, but the benefits are immediate and they are huge. By starting your runs slower, by starting more relaxed, you’ll get a better sense of what your body is ready to do on that particular day and you’ll feel less forced.
Change or remove the variables.
It’s how we quantify and qualify our training. Many of us are a little OCD about logging our mileage. We report our daily dose up to the hundredths. But your body doesn’t know mileage. It doesn’t know time, either. It knows duration. So if you’re a mileage junkie, at whatever weekly mileage you run, try changing the way you monitor or report your daily run, which reduces the number of things you have to think about, which in turn can increase your ability to run relaxed. We report our running by factors of time versus distance versus effort, right? Well, because we’re all wired the way we are, we automatically multiply the first two together, and we falsely report that number as the third variable.
Take out one of the first two on a given day and see what happens on that run. Focus on the third variable. Focus on effort. You can map out a 6 mile loop and then leave your watch by the front door. No, seriously. Leave your watch at home. Just go run six miles and leave it untimed. Your nose won’t fall off and likely you’ll have an easier, more relaxed, more enjoyable run. Easy is an effort, isn’t it? It isn’t a pace, and your pace will vary from day to day, given the day’s circumstances. One day you might run 8:12’s and it’s easy. It’s cake. The next day you might feel a little under the weather or maybe work really sucked or your kids were a handful, and easy doesn’t get you much more than 8:30’s. But if easy is the goal, it is better to focus on being easy—being relaxed—than it is to hit a certain split. Six miles. That’s all.
Or maybe your nose will fall off if you don’t wear your watch. If you just cannot go out the door without your beloved timekeeper, then take out the distance variable. Just run for time. If your normal six-mile run takes you, I don’t know, 50 minutes, then set the timer on your watch to beep at 26 minutes and just go exploring. Pay no attention to the watch until it beeps and then simply turn around and retrace your steps. Because you started out glacially slow, you’ll come back a bit quicker so you may or may not be right at 50 minutes, will you? It even sounds more relaxed, doesn’t it? “I ran 50 minutes, easy.” Much more so than “I ran six miles in 50:31, easy.” Remove one of the variables and you’ll have less to think about, less to concern yourself with, and you’ll run more relaxed and you’ll get more out of even your easy days.
Come to think of it, if you really want to see some improvements in your running, ditch your watch. At least, ditch your watch more often. More simply, don’t be a slave to the watch. I’ve witnessed a couple of occasions that have become part of my coaching lore.
One morning, as we headed out into the dark to jog our warm up before the workout, a woman, very exasperated and disappointed, exclaimed that she couldn’t do the workout because she left her GPS at home. She’d forgotten it. The point being that she was so fixated on knowing exactly what was happening on her wrist that she was willing to forego at that moment the very thing that she’d come to do. But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t just let herself run without it. So she wrangled a training partner to go with her to “just run easy.” Which, of course, meant that they would not.
On another occasion, a guy in our group was getting dropped near the end of the runs when he really shouldn’t have. He was getting very discouraged. I suspected that he was tying up because he wasn’t relaxed and was worried far too much about how fast he was running. Whenever I saw his group click by, he was looking at his wrist. He wasn’t focused on his effort, but on his pace. So on our next weekly progression run, I asked him to not look at his wrist for the whole run. When the group returned from the run, he was right smack dab in the middle of his training partners, smiling and laughing. They’d run really fast that morning, faster than they’d done it before, and he had too. By focusing on effort, and allowing himself to be relaxed, he’d had a great run, and his confidence was rightfully in place.
When the time comes for you to get down to business and you start knocking out half mile repeat on the track again, you can pay a little more attention to the numbers. By then, you’ll have a better sense of effort, a better sense of what a given effort feels like, and you’ll be able to get a little bit more out of yourself. But until then, practice running as relaxed as possible, as often as possible.