Here I am on a Saturday, having finished week 8 of “my” Unofficial Running Science 5k Plan for Old(ish) Folks, as well as the fourth of five races in seven weeks. Oh, and it’s the most brutal time of summer in a region where summer starts in February and ends in November.
The plan is going well; I’ve adapted to five days per week and made my initial mileage bump to 32/week (25% of those being high intensity miles). And my accidental plan for 5k racing as 5k training seems to be working also.
But am I getting faster? The answer to that turns out to be surprisingly complicated.
My first trail run this past July was 6:56/mile, and today I ran 6:46/mile, so that would say yes. But my fastest 5k was a 20:01 in April, which is 6:30/mile, so I’m actually much slower now. But that April race was all paved road, and the trails were much tougher (read, slower). Plus, it was substantially cooler in the “early summer” of April.
All this led me to want to see my times in a graph. So after an hour of data entry, here it is, my 5k race pace since I started running again a bit over two years ago:
- You’ll note first that I’ve taken the vertical axis down to 5:45/mile. Have to leave room for miraculous improvement!
- Those times sure did drop fast when I started running.
- They sure stopped dropping fast by the onset of fall, last year. In fact, that’s a darn flat line from October 2016 – May 2017. Darn flat indeed.
- Summers are slower. (Note that N=2 here, so consider significance accordingly.)
- This summer has been a lot slower, but that’s in part because of my injury and sickness, neither of which was quite gone for my June 2017 race, and the fact that three of my summer races were trail runs. The one road race I’ve done (while healthy) was a respectable 6:36/mile. So actually, this summer is, on average, probably a bit faster than last summer. Maybe?
So here’s what I think is going on. Basically I’ve got three major trends intersecting in this chart, along with some other smaller and more variable inputs:
- As I get in better shape my times get better, but that’s a curve that flattens. It was much harder to go from a 6:45/mile pace to a 6:30/mile, than it was to go from 7:45—7:30.
- As I get older I’m getting a bit slower. I don’t know the slope of this, but I hope it’s a very shallow line. Very very shallow. But, of course, it slopes up. My gains from training are fighting against my losses from age.
- There is a seasonal pattern, with time jumping in summer and dropping in winter. Remember, a South Texas “winter” rarely requires more than a long sleeve shirt. Our marathon is in January. (And it was still too hot this past year!)
Other stuff matters on a smaller scale. I haven’t been tapering for races because I’m using them as part of my training rather than as goals, for example. And then there’s course conditions, start times, and the many variables of food and sleep and so forth. But the three trends above are the big ones.
So, am I faster? Yes, I’m faster than I was a month ago, and faster than I was a year ago, but not as fast as I was six months ago.
Can I get a 19:59 5k before I age out? That’s only a few seconds per mile better than my best, so probably.
Can I reach my super-lofty goal of an 18:59? It’s not looking good. That curve seems to be flattening about 20 seconds/mile too slow. But I’ll give it a go. The plan is harder than any I’ve done, and I’m not getting any younger, so if it’s going to happen, it best happen soon.
 I should note that I recognize that five days and/or 30 miles/week is slacking for many people. But isn’t for me. And one thing I’ve (mostly) learned from running is that you can only compare yourself to yourself in the end. I’ll never belong on a course with the elites, and though I may be faster than some weekend joggers, who’s to say they suffer any less? So I’m after a PR, or a few, and that’s it. No apologies.