Compared to What? An Old(ish) Runner Ponders Race Times in South Texas Summer

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.

I’m surviving.

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).[1] 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:

Steve's 5k Race Pace_9_2_17

Some observations:

  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 


 

 

[1] 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.

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Trail Races are Hard(er)

I just wrapped up week 6 on my Unofficial Running Science 5k Plan for Old(ish) Folks with a 5k trail race in place of the planned superset. And I have to say, trail races are significantly harder (read, slower) than your regular street 5k. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. Today’s race comes in at 6:53/mile, as per the Garmin.

runners-1438373

The plan seems to be going well. This week was the same total miles as last week (32), but had a bump in hard miles (from 18% to 25%). Still, I felt good. The hard runs were hard, but the long slow recovery runs actually did the “recovery” part quite well, and I felt almost as good at the end of my recovery days as I generally do at the end of a rest day. Almost.

So the question is, why was this run 17 seconds/mile slower than my street 5k a couple weeks ago, and a mere 3 seconds/mile faster than the trail run three weeks back?

I have some ideas:

  1. As noted in the title, trail runs are just harder, or at least slower. This course was about 75% winding single-track with switchbacks, tons of roots, some overhanging branches, and a few ups and downs (though not really much of the last). All of these things force you to slow down, and this slowing in turn makes it easier to settle into that slower pace without realizing. Plus, it can be deceptive: all those branches whipping by make it seem like you’re flying along. So maybe I need to compare this run only to my last trail run?
  2. I’m being ridiculously impatient. I was a bit out of shape after the injury/sickness/traveling layoff, and though I feel like I’m back in regular shape, it has only been six weeks. The plan calls for sixteen.
  3. I’m fatigued. The jump in mileage in week five and the jump in intensity this week might just have tired me out. I took a rest day yesterday, before the race, but I’m in the middle of a ramping-up section of the plan, not a taper, so I’m supposed to be fatigued! That’s the whole point of this part of the plan: get fatigued so my body will adapt.
  4. My running isn’t paced correctly. I’ve never been a long-slow runner before, so even though it’s only a couple days per week, I still feel a bit strange about those runs. The old “principle of specificity” says training is most useful when it’s closest to race pace. Obviously this would mean my plan is trash, so I’m not going here just yet (talk to me after week 17). But, I am thinking I might add a couple miles at lactate threshold into the middle of at least one of my long runs.
  5. It’s too hot. This feels like a bad excuse, but it is crazy hot here in the depths of south Texas just now. At 7:30 this morning it was about 80 degrees and 88% humidity. A slight change to those numbers and I’d be swimming. I know this matters, and one reason I started the plan now was so that I’d finish in late October or early November once it had cooled off (into the 60s at least). Still, I resist this explanation. Perhaps stupidly.
  6. I’ve hit a plateau. This may well be the case. Part of the impetus behind creating this plan was to break through that barely-over-20-minutes 5k plateau. But I’m not even back to that level. I’m a plateau down from my plateau.
  7. It was just an off day. They happen. Eat something that sets your stomach off, miss some sleep, forget your lucky socks: who know what causes them, but they happen. But again, that’s one reason I love the 5k—I can race another in a week if I want!

Any of these are perfectly reasonable explanations for a mediocre run. Maybe all of them.

But for the moment none of this is important. All that matters, really, is that I get up tomorrow and head out the door for my scheduled slow six miler.