Run For Your Life (or yet another reason why 5Ks rock!)

I’m not quite there yet, but I can imagine a time in the not so very distant future when I have to accept that I’ll never set another PR, and change my running mindset. There will always be age group awards, of course, and the general thrill of competition, but I’ve begun to imagine what it would look like if I were to eventually quit running for records and started running for health. Or, more specifically, what would my training be like if all I cared about was maximizing the health benefits of running?

Looking over some recent studies, I’d suggest that the answer is that it would look pretty much just like training for a fast 5k.


In other words, weekly workouts when running for health would include a close-to-even mix of high intensity intervals, weight training, and slow and steady running.


High intensity intervals have shown a huge range of benefits, generally beating slow and steady running in several areas:

But, intervals are hard and can take a toll on the body, so most people suggest no more than two (maybe three) such workouts in a week. I’m capping out at two. One of those will certainly be my all time favorite, the 30/20/10.

Weight Training

Maybe the biggest danger of any workout is injury, and intervals might be especially dangerous there. If you get injured, you’re off the road for a long while, and any running is better than no running. So the top goal of any plan must be to stay healthy. How to do that? Strength training.

Strength helps when you’re young and is one key to speed (by improving economy), but when you’re… not so young, strength training is absolutely essential. Sure, it’ll keep you fast(ish), but more importantly, if you don’t do it you’ll lose muscle mass every year, and sooner or later—probably sooner—you’re going to be staying home and nursing an injury instead of getting in your miles.

So to my two intervals per week I have to add two strength sessions, with plyometrics, (probably on the same days).

Slow and Steady Running (marathon pace)

So far we’ve got four workouts, but only two days per week. What about the other five days? Well, most of those should be the slow and steady runs, which do a few things.

  • They are “recovery runs” (kind of an oxymoron, but let’s ignore that), letting your muscles have a light day to adapt to the intervals
  • They develop slow twitch muscles, adding capillaries and improving lactate clearance
  • They prevent me from going insane. It’s nice to get up and know you’re scheduled for an easy run sometimes.
  • There is increasing anecdotal evidence that top runners tend to spend a lot of time (70-80%) at this pace.

And Don’t Forget to Rest

I’ve come to believe in a five day per week schedule. When I get hurt or busy, I don’t even mind dropping that to four (maybe a walk or a bike ride instead of a slow run). But days off of running are sacred. Not only do they keep you out of the doctor’s office, they are when your body actually improves. Exercise stresses; rest builds.

So the moral of all this, is that I don’t have to choose between speed and health. So long as I’m sticking to my favorite race, I can train from PRs for the rest of my life, and if I don’t get those PRs, at least I’m getting years of happy life.


Half Marathon Update: Half a Failure or Half a Success?

This morning was the goal half marathon, and now, hours later, having taken in all the calories I burned and drank all the coffee I skipped, it’s time to reflect.

The glass is half full!

  • It was a PR (1:42:14). I don’t run many races this length (this is only my third), but I did manage to beat my time from last year.
  • I didn’t want to die. The last three miles of the race a year ago were the worst miles of my running life. I ran with full and complete abandon into the proverbial wall, and it took every bit of willpower I had to keep the legs moving at the end, as racer after racer blew by me. It was agony unparalleled. Today, though, through some mysterious combination of better training, better fueling, and/or better pacing, I finished tired and weak and slower than I wanted, but able to move my legs without crushing mental effort. There were some very concerned looking volunteers offering me water at the end, but I’ll attribute that to my perpetually haggard appearance.


Screw that, it’s half empty!

  • Life blew apart my training plan. My much more intensive training was shot to hell a few weeks ago by a combination of things (unexpected trip, illness, and injury) that meant I covered five total miles in the week just three weeks before the race. I followed this up with a slow taper week of 25 miles, and then a real taper week of 15 miles, both designed primarily to get me healthy again (if not fit). This mostly worked. I wasn’t sick and the injury didn’t consciously bother me. Still, so much for all those 50 mile weeks earlier in the plan.
  • It was a lousy 12 second PR, and given my horrible race the year before I should have had huge room for improvement. Instead, the best I could do is maintain (pretty much).


Update: Results just posted online. 6th in my age group, and no surprise I was out of the medals. Had I run my advertised goal time (7:30/mile) would have had 4th, and had I run my secret goal time (7:20) I would have managed 3rd. One interesting surprise is that the woman I ended up running with pretty much the whole way was the overall female winner. She dusted me in the last mile.

Honestly, my biggest takeaway is that I just am not a distance racer. I don’t like races this long. Give me fast 5k any day. Give me intervals and quick tempo runs and plyometrics and sprints and starts that leave me gasping. Maybe it’s my unwillingness to put in huge miles in training. (50 is it for me. I need to get other stuff done beside running. Remember that “Rhetoric” part of this blog’s title?). Maybe it’s also something mental. I can trick myself into maintaining what feels like a crushing pace in the 5k by breaking it into tiny chunks. But the chunks of even a half marathon seem too freaking big to be encouraging (only three more miles and you’ll be almost half way!). And maybe it’s just my body. I may just be better built for shorter races. I know folks like me who are closing in on the half-century mark are supposed to move to longer distances, but perhaps that’s not in the cards.

So back to my true love: 5ks. And maybe, just maybe, a sub-19 time this spring?

3.09 is Close Enough

I’m calling it a victory! My quest for a sub-20 minute 5k is over.

The Garmin may think 3.09 miles is not 3.1, but it’s not the boss of me.

In my recent race—a rare evening run in the last of the summer heat (90 degrees at start time)—my watch told me I’d crossed the line at 19:29. A bit less than a minute later, as I wobbled around the finish area,  my watch buzzed. Apparently I hadn’t really hit the stop button, and it was happily informing me I’d set a new 5k record—20:10.

Later I put it all together. The watch recorded the race as 3.09 miles, but my fatigued stumbling after the finish gave me that extra .01 miles… and in a mere 40 seconds after my 19:29 finish.

I could have surrendered to the will of the GPS gods, I suppose, but this one was too much—or more accurately, too little. So when I got home I ran the numbers and figured .01 miles represents about 4 seconds at my pace. Then I edited the activity, and, just for good measure, added six seconds (a whopping 50% penalty!), and changed the distance to 3.1 miles. Voila, a new record!

Image of a Garmin display, reading 3.10 miles distance and 19:35 time.

Frankly, I’m pretty thrilled. I figured I could break 20, but to do so on a ninety degree day, and on a course that included some trails and a lot of grass, is better than I expected.

Oh, and I beat my nemesis.

Of course, the question now becomes… What next?

In the short term I’m going to start prepping for the McAllen half marathon in January. Last year I ran a 1:42, but I was absolutely crushed by the wall at mile 10, so there should be plenty of room for improvement. My new goal? 7:30/mile pace, or about 12 sec/mile better than last year, which should put me at 1:38. All the calculators are telling me I’m supposed to run at seven-flat given the 19:35 5k, but all the calculators clearly have no freaking idea what they’re talking about. I am quite aware that the farther races get from 5k, the worse I am. Still, we’ll see how it goes over the next eleven weeks. Running Science surely has some ideas.

And in the medium term… maybe a sub-19 really is possible in 2018. Maybe. Probably not. (But maybe!)

Under 20:00 5k! (Sort of)

Today was the goal race. It was perfectly scheduled (by accident, I’ll admit) on the last day of “my” sixteen week plan. The taper went smoothly. It was a fast course—flat and all on roads. It was big field (though not many at the same pace as me, unfortunately). And the temperature, as if by the hand of fate itself, went from high 70s a week ago to low 50s today.

I was fit. I was healthy. The course was perfect. The conditions were perfect.

In short, it was the perfect setup for a total disaster. Had I blown it, there would have been absolutely nothing to blame but myself.

But, I didn’t blow it.

My final pace was 6:21/mile, which is right what I was aiming for. And my final time was 19:10, which would be truly fantastic for me… if it were real.

The course, unfortunately, was 3.02 miles, or .08 miles short of a full 5k. Assuming I could have held that 6:22 average pace for the missing .08 miles, my real time would have been 19:40. So… success! Sort of. It is a record for me, and I’ll call it a half accomplishment of my 2017 running goal of a 19-something 5k, but my Garmin is unforgiving, and still lists the 20:20 5k from March of this year as my 5k PR. That half of my goal—the electronic acknowledgement—will have to wait.

And just because I care about such things, a couple notes about the race itself.

  • I started deliberately slow, standing several rows back at the line and trying not to dash around the joggers and children who seem always to claim the front for a couple hundred meters before fading. The net effect of this was to bring my initial ¼ mile split to 97 seconds, which is almost exactly on pace. In other words, by forcing myself to go out freakishly slow, I ended up going out just right.
  • My mile splits were 6:30, 6:28, 6:06 (plus five seconds for that spare .02 miles). So very negative splits. Frankly, I’m a bit stunned at that last mile. When I run mile intervals, with six minutes rest in between, I only hit 6:15 or so on my third interval.
  • I felt great all the way through. In fact, I kept expecting to have that moment of agony when I just couldn’t sustain my pace, but it never really came. There was the usual steady pain, of course, but no crushing I-must-slow-down-or-I’ll-die sensation. I think this means I probably could have gone out a little faster. A little. Next time I’ll make a bit more effort to stay at 6:20 pace during miles 1 and 2.

In any case, here is my updated race time graph:

Race Times_October 2017

Oh, and my nemesis beat me. I’ve beaten him two races in a row with considerably worse times, but apparently he and I both had great days today, probably because of the weather. His was a little greater, though. One week from today, a rematch.

But for now, I’m happy that the last sixteen weeks have added up to something. A 21 second PR may not seem like much–it may not BE much–but cross one item off the bucket list. Okay, half an item. Stupid Garmin.


An Easy (!) 40 Mile Week

I just wrapped up week 15 of “my” training plan, and am headed into the final full taper week in anticipation of my two goal races next week and the week after. But this week was a sort of pre-taper: I kept the miles, but cut down the speed work, ending up with only 18% “quality” miles instead of the 25% or so for previous weeks.

So this was my third 40+ mile week in a row. And it was a breeze.

The fact that I can say that says something about how much this plan has changed me as a runner. I may be a bit behind on grading and class design and academic research, but what used to be unthinkable miles and frequency can now be called a “light week.” Nice.

Of course, I have no idea yet if this will translate to a faster 5k. I’m suspicious, frankly. All these long slow runs are awfully far away from the specificity of that particular race. At the very least it’s a nice foundation for the half marathon I’m planning in January, and I think it’s also been good for injuries as my legs feel generally stronger and so are perhaps a bit less fragile. Plus, it’s kind of cool.

Still, I can taste that 20 minute 5k. It’s going to hurt, I know. I can run a dozen 400s at 5:30 mile pace. I can run three one-mile repeats at 6:10–6:15. And I can hit a comfortable tempo run of 7:15 for five or six miles. But does this mean I string together three consecutive miles at 6:25? Nothing in my training says that’ll be anything other than just at the edge of the possible. But I suppose possible is enough. Give me a fast course, enough competitors at my goal pace, and a cool day, and it just might come together.

My first real shot at it will be in one week. Stay tuned.

40 Mile Week!

I just finished my first 40 mile week since I was sixteen years old.

I know this isn’t much for many people, and is around the extreme lower end for marathoners… but it’s pretty cool for an old guy like me. And regardless, I’m training for a fast 5k, not a marathon.

For the next couple weeks I’ll stick to this level, keeping up the five day schedule of “my” plan, slightly modified to include with two speed workouts, one tempo, one long slow run (12 miles most recently), and one medium length slow run (7 miles).

I think I’m getting faster. My four mile tempo run felt solid at just over 7 min/mile, and my last round of 12x400m were all coming in at about 1:25 each with about the same rest in between. Of course, it might just be the fact that it’s slightly cooler these days.

Anyway, three weeks from now I’ll start a two week taper with a 5k race at the end of each.

And one of those races better be the magic sub-20 I’ve been working on for the past months!

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.