Friday, February 19, 2016

How Should the Long Distance Endurance Athlete Pace Workouts

After many years of racing marathons and shorter triathlons, 2006 was the year I finally stepped up to the Ironman distance. I knew I couldn't do it on my own and I hired Coach to train me for the race. I knew what I knew, and at that point I knew that I didn't know how to prepare for 140.6 miles. I put my trust in the one person I personally knew who could get me to the start line prepared.

We sat down on January 2, 2006 to go over the big picture of what I would be doing for the next seven months as well as discuss the first few weeks of training. That morning I ran 8 miles before work. After work, before getting together, I swam. After 10 minutes with Coach I felt like I was already behind in my training. Ironman training, like any plan for a long race, is A LOT of volume. I think I may have peed a little when I saw what the first 10 weeks looked like.

While I cannot remember all of the specifics of what we discussed that evening there are two things that stick out in my mind, and stay with me to this day. To start, I had it in my mind that I would follow along with the plan until I inevitably hurt myself with what I thought was a massive load of swim/bike/run. Once I went down for the count I figured we would see where I was and adjust as needed. Mind you, I don't have an extensive history of injury, I just assumed something would happen.

The second thing I remember is being told that in order to get through the first 10 weeks, which by design would be run intensive, I would have to run many, many miles at a pace "that would feel embarrassingly slow, to the point of you feeling like people are driving by and laughing at how slow you are running." The only way to increase my mileage to the point we were planning on would require me to spend many a morning just getting in the miles.

Being the good student I was, I followed the plan - lots of volume, most of it at a slow, aerobic pace. Was I embarrassed at the pace? No. Hard days were hard and, truth be told, the total volume was so high relative to what I had previously done, I had no choice but to slow down when I wasn't going fast. Hell, there were days I had trouble actually getting to an aerobic pace.

In the end the plan worked. My body got stronger and more resilient over the 7 months of training. I was able to adequately recover between hard sessions. I made it to the start line fit and ready to go.

The moral of the story is simple - properly pacing my workouts allowed me to build fitness without breaking the body down. 

But what is proper pacing? 

This is going to depend on how you are training. If you are training based on heart rate (MAF training for example) and are looking for higher volume training it is going to be quite different than if you are using a more traditional plan based on interval training. I have personally used both styles of training and have experience in success and failure with both. I have definite opinions on what is necessary to get to the start line injury-free and feeling good.

Pacing for the Heart Rate Training (MAF) Athlete

MAF stand for Maximum Aerobic Function. For the person who is training in this style you are training to build aerobic capacity. I have found much success in training in this matter as it has allowed me to avoid injury, both small and large, for a very long time. It is less exciting than a set of 12 x 400 on the track or working your FTP on the bike. With this form of training you will be getting in miles at a set heart rate range. You will do this day after day. Depending on how you feel (and the conditions) your pace can/will vary on a day-to-day basis, but should trend faster as you get more fit.

For example, if your MAF zone is 140-150 bpm and you can run an 8:00/mi pace, you can reasonably expect to see days where you are faster as well as days you are slower, depending on how you feel/how recovered you are on a given day. If you are doing things right you will see a gradual increase in pace that would be confirmed when you periodically test at the track or on a repeatable course.

Eventually you will hit a peak and gains will level off. This could happen in a few months or it can happen in a year or more. It all just depends. Everyone has a different level of volume the body can absorb as well as having only a limited amount of time to actually train. Once you do see a peak happening you will need to change things up for a period of time. Until that point pacing is simple - stay within your training zone.

One issue some people have is with the intensity of the training. At the beginning many people find this type of training to be rather easy. A 3:30 marathoner might find that when they start training based on their MAF that their aerobic pace is closer to 9:00/mile or maybe even 10:00/mile. Hills might even reduce you to a walk. In such a case the training will feel easy ... very easy ... maybe even easy to the point of being unsure you are getting benefit from the work. That is more than likely a result of working really hard in the past and not even realizing it. The point of this training is to develop your ability to work at your MAF and not stroke your ego. Going too hard - well above your specific heart rate zone - defeats the purpose of training in this style.

The other side of the coin is when one gets extremely fit and the MAF pace is very fast. It is not unusual for a fit athlete to run at MAF heart rate in the 6:xx or 5:xx/mile range. Do this day after day and it can become very taxing on the body. At this point one would start to do intervals at MAF and the recovery periods would be at lower heart rates. This is a problem that happens a lot on the bike as well.

Specifically, once you start getting into doing interval training you will want follow these guidelines for proper pacing:

- train in your specific range most of the time
- interval work should be dictated by heart rate, not pace
- intervals are in your aerobic zone when your muscular system isn't as strong as your cardio system

For more information on this style of training I suggest you pick up either The Maffetone Method or The Endurance Handbook, both by Dr. Phil Maffetone.

Pacing for Traditional Periodization Training

If you take a more traditional approach to your training your weekly workload would have a combination of hard interval work, easy recovery days, and some tempo work thrown in to the mix. Over the course of a training cycle you will move from general fitness building to more specific work that is geared toward your "A" race for the season or year. There are a number of different ways to go about this and a lot of books available to you for reference. Here are two great examples:

Going Long by Joe Friel and Gordo Byrn

Daniel's Running Formula by Dr. Jack Daniels

Unlike MAF training which is focused on one energy system - aerobic capacity - training in this style will have you doing a variety of workouts designed to work specific energy systems. One day you may do some short, high intensity bike intervals to work the anaerobic system then do a long run the following day that is designed to work your aerobic system. It is important to make sure you are training at a proper pace for each workout or you risk not accomplishing what the workout is designed to do.

The first problem I have seen people make is over-estimating one's fitness. And I get it. Not only do I get it, but I have made this mistake myself. We all think we are better than we really are, right? We have all, at some point, justified a "poor" performance on poor nutrition/ dehydration/ lousy pacing/ a bad night's sleep/ or some other justification. Whatever. Unless you got hit by a bus while racing it is safe to say you are only as good as your last race or test in training.

So as an athlete it is important to put your ego on ice and take a realistic look at where your actual fitness level is at the start of your plan. Yes, your goal may be to run a 3:15 marathon or an 11 hour Ironman, but if you ran a 3:34 marathon or a 13 hour Ironman last November that is a much better indicator of where you are now than your ultimate goal time, and that is what your training paces need to be based on.

Yes, you read that correctly, the paces you run in training should be based on where you are at now and not what you thing you might be able to do on your best day in perfect racing conditions.

Once you have decided on what your actual fitness level is, the second problem I see people make with this style of training is pushing the pace in the given workouts. In my experience this seems to happen more with the run than the bike. Here are two examples of what I'm taking about:

  • Sally has a track session planned for 12 x 400 at 1:40 with a 1 minute rest interval. The pace is hard but doable. After hitting pace in the first few intervals Sally starts to run a bit faster, now crossing the line in 1:35 for each 400. Because faster is better. 
  • Joe has an aerobic run on the schedule that his plan dictates should be run at an 8:00/mile pace. After a few mile warm up Joe settles into a 7:35/mile pace for the rest of his run. Because, again, faster is better.
No. Faster is NOT better. The track workout is designed to work a specific energy system and the faster pace has compromised what the main purpose of the workout happened to be for that day. And while running a general aerobic run at a faster pace than prescribed seems makes sense, it is over-stressing the body. That extra stress might not show up that day or that week, but eventually it will show up in your training in a negative way. Maybe you become over-tired or maybe you get an injury.

While we are all attached to our digital devices and obsessed with pace, the body knows effort, it doesn't know pace. I repeat, the body knows effort, it doesn't know pace. Workouts are designed in a way to get you to work work at a certain effort, pace (or watts on the bike) are just the manner in which your coach can convey the effort level required.

(side note: Is it just me or do the majority of triathletes seem to want to put a ton of effort into their run training but not so much effort on the bike? I like running fast and hard, don't get me wrong, but pushing the pedals is so, so much fun. Sorry for the detour ...)

Training at the wrong effort/pace is not always about going too hard. Sometimes it is about the third pacing mistake - training in the grey zone. This happens when one runs the hard workouts too easy and the easy workouts too hard. Basically when you train in the grey zone you are kinda, sorta, working your different energy systems but not really. You aren't going hard enough to have an affect on your anaerobic system or your Vo2Max, but harder than necessary to efficiently work your aerobic capacity. This level of effort will tire you out but not give you great results. It is the worst of all worlds.

How does one go about making sure they don't make these mistakes:

  • If a workout comes with set paces, stick with them. Your body knows effort and the prescribed pace is the vocalization of the necessary effort
  • Remember Rule #1 - Hard is hard, easy is easy
  • Set your training up based on what you CAN do, not what you think you can do
  • Periodically test your fitness either in training or with a race, then adjust pacing in training as needed

Final Thoughts

Effort in your training is important to athletic success. Some people would interpret that to mean that you always need to "work hard." For the Type-A  athlete this makes total and complete sense - outwork the competition. When it comes to real world application, however, the outwork the competition model by pushing your limits in training on a daily will more than likely lead you down the wrong path.

Proper training requires you to properly pace your workouts to accomplish the training goals for that workout. A recovery spin should not turn into a throw-down with your buddies in the final 3 miles of the ride. Likewise, an aerobic run should be run at an aerobic pace, not slightly faster or a whole lot slower. If you stick with the plan and hit your proper training intensities you give yourself the best chance of staying healthy and racing successfully.

As always, thanks for reading.

Train hard. Stay focused.

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