Lungs and Legs: Two Kinds of Running Pain

Many many years ago, when I was a skinny and comparatively quick high school distance runner, all of us on the track team were doing intervals—200s, I think. These were terrible for me. I was a pretty good distance runner, but I was a pitiful sprinter, and worse yet, the coach had split us into two teams of mixed sprinter and distance runners, and the intervals were a sort of relay race, one team against the other. I was obviously the weak link.

As we came around to on of the last intervals, the guy on the other team—I can’t remember his name, Jerrod, maybe, a decent but unexceptional sprinter—got the baton before me and jumped out to a significant lead. Everyone  knew what would happen. Jerrod may not have been a great sprinter, but I was genuinely bad.

But those 200 meters changed me forever. I was wiped out. Everyone was wiped out. It had been a hard workout and we were at the end of practice and people were bent over gasping between intervals. But I remember that race to this day, decades later. I started out pushing, feeling as usual like I was running through molasses. Panting hard, breathing heavy, and struck with that not-enough-air pain of running we all know. Then, for some reason, I just accepted that pain. I didn’t fight it, or even fight though it. I just accepted it. Absorbed it. Embraced it maybe. The pain was a message, not a statement of my limits, and I could listen to message but not obey it. Then I focused not on my gasping breath, but on my legs. They still had something. I might not be able to breathe, but it was only 200 meters and my legs didn’t need air.

I didn’t quite catch Jerrod, but I almost did, and the coach—everyone, in fact—asked me  what in the world had happened. What came over me? I didn’t know. I still wasn’t a sprinter, but from then on, no matter how much I was gasping for air, I could always find another gear by embracing the pain and switching my focus from my breathing to my legs. It’s my late-race strategy to this day.

Thinking about this, I’ve come to believe running hurts in at least two very different ways. First, there is the lung pain that fills your chest, telling you that you’re not getting enough air. Slow Down, it yells at you. At the same time, though, there is the leg pain that is your muscles hurting from too much—and too long—work. This is the dead leg feeling, the increasing difficulty of lifting each leg with each step.

So maybe one trick to running is to think about the pain that hurts less. Legs dying? Think about how solid and strong your breathing is. Gasping for air? Think about your strong and powerful legs. You pretty much always have more in the tank than your worst pain lets you believe.

I should clarify here: this still hurts. Switching focus to your legs is not a way of minimizing the pain you feel from overtaxing your lungs. At least not for long. It’s more a way of borrowing against that pain in the firm awareness that every moment’s respite will have to be paid back with interest when you cross the line. Sometimes before.

Today, for example, I was doing 1600 repeats, aiming for each to be around 6:15. As I was heading into the last quarter mile of my last repeat, I was wiped. It’s been two hard weeks, it’s still unreasonably hot and humid outside, and I was clearly outrunning my aerobic capacity as my lungs were getting to that burning I’m-going-to-die-soon feeling. So I turned my attention to my legs, and sure enough, there was something there. Stored glycogen? Who knows. I’m no biologist. But there was a strength there—or at least a pain that was less than that in my lungs—and I knew no matter how my lungs felt I could make those legs go a bit faster for at least another ¼ mile.  I knew it because decades ago, I almost beat Jerrod one time.


A Tiny Update

I’m back to teaching–and more to the point, I’m back to grading papers–so that explains the super light posting schedule.

But, just a few quick running updates:

I’m on week 13 of my plan, which should be my first 40 mile week. The increased distance hasn’t actually been bad, but the time involved is really sucking up my free time (rhetoric research time, blog time, etc.).

The 12×400 interval session, with my current pace being just a shade under 90 sec per, with about the same rest period, is the toughest one by far. I dread those.

I’ve come to think three speed sessions per week is one too many, and that I need to replace one with a long tempo run. I’ve done a couple short tempo sessions at 5k pace + 30 sec/mile or so (2 mile, or 2×2 mile with one slow mile in between) . I think I’ll try a longer slower session. Maybe 6 miles at 10k race pace + 30 sec/mile? But I’m not sure which speed run to bump. I suppose I should rotate, but getting rid of those 400s is awfully tempting. (But no–the fact that they hurt so much likely means they’re precisely what I need.)

I’m not convinced all these long slow miles are really worth it. They add a huge chunk of distance to my totals and make the numbers look a lot better, but are they making me faster? I don’t know. Maybe they’re at least keeping me healthier, as I haven’t had an injury. Then again, maybe that’s a bit of a post-hoc fallacy right there. Hard to know. They do seem to work as recovery, at least.

The weather is finally just beginning to drop away from sweltering. Still some 80 degree/90% humidity mornings, but there are now frequent 70 degree/90% humidity mornings. I’ll take what I can get.

The plan is almost over. I have three hard weeks and a taper week left. Then two races in consecutive weeks to see if the last 16 weeks got me where I needed to be.

After that… I’m not sure. A bit more 5k training, maybe, as the weather cools. Then probably a move to a 1/2 marathon plan for the McAllen half in January. 1:42 is my time to beat. Pretty sure I can without too much trouble, since I slammed into the wall at mile ten last year.

Oh, and the rhetoric research comparing the narrative forms of Bernie & Hillary is looking like it’ll lead to some great results. But a ways to go there yet.

My Life in Miles

Five weeks in, and I’ve survived the big mileage jump. Actually, it wasn’t bad at all.

The last three weeks of “my” plan were about 25 miles each, with a bit less than 25% of that consisting of “hard” miles (intervals, etc). Week five, though, had a scheduled jump to 32 miles, and I was worried.

I’ve never been a high-mileage runner (I’d rather go fast than long), only breaking the 30-mile mark a couple times since I got back in to the sport two years ago, as you can see from the chart below:

weekly miles

But part of my plan was built on the realization that I just wasn’t covering the miles I needed; fast is great, but long and slow is vital as well. I did try to soften the blow of the (totally rule-breaking) 30% jump in mileage by ensuring pretty much all those new miles were also “easy” miles. It helped. Now to add in some more quality miles.

Maybe before too long I’ll put together another chart of my 5k race times to see how it matches up to the above graph, but for the moment it’s fun just to look back at all those little blue bars and think of the many hours they represent, and more importantly the countless momentary decisions to get up early, to head out the door, and to keep going even when it hurt.

5k Racing as 5k Training

Thanks to two great 5k race series offers, I’ve somehow ended up registering for five races in seven weeks. And I think it’s just what I need.

There is a lot written about not racing too often, but it seems most of it—almost all of it, really—is about marathons. The 5k is seen as a beginner’s race, which is frankly ridiculous. Do we say 1500 meter runners in the Olympics are lesser athletes than 5000 meter runners? Of course not. So let’s set aside the elitism of distance over speed, and accept that part of being a runner is finding your distance.  If that’s the marathon, more power to you. And if it’s the 5k, that’s great too. (If it’s the 1500, sadly, you’re out of luck because you’ll never find track races for those between school age and Senior Olympics age, but I digress…)

For me—at least right now—the 5k is the perfect distance. It’s fast enough that I get to run fast. It’s long enough that my mediocre foot speed doesn’t kill my results. It’s short enough that I can train without neglecting the other parts of my life (husband, father, academic, time-waster, etc.). And best of all, it’s brief enough that races are fantastic training as they are productive rather than destructive. (Marathon, I’m looking at you!)

As I posted yesterday, Runner’s World suggests that one of the key training mistakes is that runners do their easy runs too hard and their hard runs too easy. So it seems to me that a 5k race—or even five of them in seven weeks—is the perfect way to make sure my hard runs are hard indeed.

Oh, and I just finished the first of those races: a bit over 21 minutes, or a rather disappointing 6:55/mile. Still almost thirty seconds per mile off my spring PR and awfully far from my 19-something goal. There are several factors behind this. It’s really hot here in south Texas just now (80 degrees and 90% humidity at race time). It was winding trail run and not a fast paved course. But most of all, I’m clearly not yet back to race shape.

But I think today helped get me there.

I Feel Like I’m Cheating. Week 3.

I’m not cheating on the plan, but the plan feels like cheating.

Some of it has been challenging. For instance, I haven’t been a five days per week runner since I was seventeen. But it’s summer and I teach for a living, so I have enough time to run and do a bit of research (“rhetoric” is still part of the title to this blog) and spend time with my daughter and wife.

The real adjustment is that there haven’t been any fast runs or any particularly long runs. My high intensity days are focused on circuit training, and my longest day has been six miles. No intervals. No tempo runs. No mile repeats. I’m either running a hundred meters from one workout station to the next, or logging a recovery day run at a leisurely 8:30ish/mile. In fact, yesterday I was beginning to wonder if I could still push the pace even a little bit so I added in a mile or so at 7:30 pace.  It felt strange.

Obviously I understand the nature of the plan (I put it together myself!): strength first, then speed and distance. And I am getting stronger; the circuit training is getting easier already.

Still, I have a 5k this Saturday—my first since I got over the bronchitis and mostly over the leg injury—and I’m having a hard time going into that race with so little speed work under my belt. I have a great fear that a first mile at 6:30 pace is going to blow up my legs and lungs. I suppose I’ll have to think of it more as part of the plan: a particularly hard workout with an unusually large running group.

I know the fast runs are coming, and when they hit I’ll look back on these days with a fond nostalgia, but for the moment, it sure feels like I’m cheating.

Unofficial 5k Plan for Old(ish) Folks: The Key Workouts

This post is going to outline the key workouts of my Unofficial Running Science 5k Plan for Old(ish) Folks. It’s not a plan yet, though, just a bunch of workouts and some explanation about the reasons behind each. I’ll try to stick it into a weekly schedule later

And I should add that this is a 5k plan, not a “couch to 5k,” so it’s mostly about speed—learning to run at the 6:15/mile pace I’m after, and to sustain that for a bit under 20 minutes.

And again, almost all of this is built on the ideas presented in Dr. Owen Anderson’s excellent book, Running Science.

The basic goals of the various workouts are:

  • Running economy
    • Efficient runners use less energy to run at the same speed as inefficient runners. Increasing efficiency is therefore basically free speed; you can run faster or longer with the same effort. Importantly, Anderson is clear (as are recent studies) that this is NOT about form fixes. As has been amply demonstrated, people tend to naturally adopt their most efficient stride, so trying to “fix” someone’s stride almost always ends up reducing efficiency. So how to improve economy? Mostly, it seems to be strength and speed work.
  • vVO2 max
    • Anderson is clear that the VO2 max measurement is nice, but not very predictive of one’s times on its own. Change in VO2 max is better. But the best, he says, is vVO2—the minimum velocity at which we hit our VO2 max. In other words, the slowest speed we’re running when our oxygen processing capacity maxes out. What’s particularly handy is that this is a measurement that combines VO2 max and efficiency.
  • Velocity at Lactate Threshold
    • Anderson is also clear that the old view of lactate as the enemy is wrong. In fact, our muscles use lactate as energy when we run! This doesn’t mean the old view is totally useless though. We used to think high lactate levels indicated our muscles were getting overwhelmed by lactate. We now know that these levels actually indicate we’ve passed the speed at which we’re able to use the lactate efficiently—there’s fuel just sitting there and our muscles can’t use it! So what we need to improve is our ability to “take up” lactate from the blood, which we can measure by running velocity at lactate threshold (the pace at which lactate levels start to spike quite rapidly). This is, by the way, another one of those indicators that is actually measuring several things at once: lactate uptake, VO2 max, economy, and other stuff. The good news is that this is very responsive to training—and even better, it’s very responsive even in old(ish) runners like myself, and is one of the only ways us old(ish) folks can make up for that annoying youth and vigor of the young(er) crowd.
  • Some other stuff
    • Other elements that matter are maximum running pace (your top speed when sprinting), nervous system efficiency, the quantity of small veins/arteries in the muscles, mitochondrial quantity and efficiency, connective tissue toughness, and finally, mental toughness—getting used to the discomfort of running and learning that the “I’m going to die if I run this fast” feeling isn’t actually (quite) the truth.

So, with that long lead in, here are the key workouts for a 5k plan, as per Anderson:

  • Circuit training
    • What to do: A mix of lower, middle, and upper body exercises, with running in between. I use the fitness trail at my local park, but add in extra running-specific activities like squats and lunges.
    • What’s the point? This workout is designed to improve running economy by building overall strength and explosiveness, but I can tell you from experience it is a lung buster also. You will be spending a lot of time at VO2 max.
    • How often?: It looks the early parts of Anderson’s plan have a couple such workouts per week, but they reduce to 1/week in later parts of the plan.
  • 30-30s (VVO2 workout 1)
    • What to do: After warming up (you should always warm up–so I’ll not mention this again), run 30 sec at vVO2 max, then 30 sec at ½ of VVO2 max. Keep on doing this until you can’t hit your pace.
      • A rough calculation of your vVO2 max can be found by measuring distance run in 6 min. With my 6 min mile recent PR, this makes my vVO2 pace about 86 sec/400m.
      • The book says the runners they tested could do, on average, about 8-9 minutes of this (with each minute representing a max run and a 50% max run).
    • What’s the point? Running at VO2 max is fantastic for you, but it’s absolutely exhausting and most people can only maintain it for a few minutes. The 30-30 workout is built around the realization that after hitting VO2 max, your heart and breathing stay there for a bit even after you stop exercising. So the trick to this is to go fast enough to get yourself maxed out, and then rest just long enough that you can keep doing the runs, but not so long that your heart rate and breathing drop out of max rates.
    • What’s next? He says one should progress to a 60-60 workout, and finally to a session of 5x3min sessions at vVO2 max, with a 3 minute jog in between.
    • How often? This is clear: no more than two of these workouts per week. After that, you will be doing more harm than good.
  • 30/20/10 (VVO2 workout 2)
    • This workout isn’t from Anderson. I read about it elsewhere (originally in a Runners’ World article, I think) and have covered it earlier. I really like it as it includes sprinting which is not only a quick way to get to VO2 max, but is also great for form and maximum running speed. Plus it’s just a delight–running the way running used to be when we were kids. I think the basic reasons given for the 30-30 workout above apply to this one also, so I’m not sure which I’ll do.
  • 400m intervals
    • What to do: This is the classic speed workout. Run 12x400m at goal 5k pace (so about 93 sec. for me), but with a measly 15 seconds of rest between. (Yikes!)
    • What’s the point? Velocity at Lactate Threshold. The workouts listed earlier will help with the economy and VO2 max part of this indicator. The rest of the benefit—the physiological development of lactate processing ability—is best developed just by picking activities that flood you with lactate. And after 12 of these babies, you will be flooded. Frankly, I seriously doubt I can even get to 12.
    • How often? Once per week.
  • Superset Training
    • What to do: This was a new one to me, and I haven’t tried it. As the book explains, you run 600m at maximum pace, and then 1000m at current 5k pace with no rest in between. This makes up one “superset.” Repeat three times (three supersets), with a 4 minute easy jog between each. So this is a total of 3 miles (4800m), with 1800m at max speed and 3000 at 5k pace.
    • What’s the point? These do everything, apparently. Anderson says they’re great for vVO2 max, lactate threshold (you’ll build lactate during the 600m portion and then teach your body to clear it while running the 1000m), maximum running speed, and mental toughness (learning to stick to 5k pace after that initial 600m burst).
    • How often? It doesn’t really say, so I’ll try to stick to once per week or so.

And there they are. Four key workouts, none of which are long slow runs. The problem I’ll have to deal with in developing the actual plan is that I have 4 hard workouts listed, and I can (should) likely do no more than three hard runs in a given week, and probably only 2 in many weeks, especially the early ones.

End of the Off-Season

First came the leg injury, and then a bit of a cold that was a real linger-er (I only felt really terrible for a couple days, but the cough and congestion lasted over two weeks, and still isn’t totally gone). This all annoyed me, of course, but I chose to treat the down time like an off-season. Rest. Heal. And get excited about workouts again.

But now the off-season is over.

I’ll have more on goals later, as well as more on my Running Science inspired 5k plan, but I already know that I have two 5k goals:

  1. Finally break 20 minutes (as per my own odd standards)
  2. Hit 19:30

(Yes, I know the second goal would cover the first. But 20 minutes is such a nice round number that I have to get excited when I hit it, yet at the same time I’m only a few seconds away from that now, so it isn’t really enough of a goal for the “season.”)

And one other goal that beats them all:

0. Stay healthy.