Real world goals will do it

Runners today have access to more measurements and metrics than ever before. Once upon a time an estimate of distance and the time on your stop-watch was the maximum you could hope for. Then the heart rate revolution happened and in later years GPS enabled real-time measurement of distance and pace and finally an estimate of power output, Ground Contact, stride length and more.

The ‘Unreal’ World

We can call these ‘primary metrics’ in that they measure one direct phenomenon: i.e. the speed you are travelling at or the number of beats your heart makes per minute. These measurements exist in two types – those that measure real-world effects (pace, distance, power) and those that measure elements of the process (stride rate, Ground Contact Time). To this, initially confusing, cohort of data points, has been added many ‘secondary metrics’ which are calculations based on a combination of ‘primary metrics’ such as looking at the Efficiency Factor of a runner by assessing how far a runner runs per Watt of work he creates or assessing stress by comparing the intensity and duration of your run against certain test performances and so on.  It goes without saying that once you delve into that level you’re no longer putting the tyres and chassis on your car – you are polishing the chrome. Like in this metaphor – polishing the chrome is worthwhile but not a priority for driving.

An advantage I possess as a coach is that I can look at all this (it’s my job) and make sense of it within the greater picture I am trying to paint with an athlete. Even then I have a cardinal rule when it comes to all measurements which I strongly suggest non-professionals adhere to in the interest of their own time:

“Look at your measurements to find answers not to create questions.”

To elaborate: use your measurements to identify the likely answer to specific questions you have – do not go to look at them because it’s the nerdy thing to do and come up with all sorts of distracting questions. This time would be better allocated to do something practical for your running instead (such a longer cooldown). If you need to go for a few minute to look and bask that is ok: positive emotional reaction to all things running is a good idea.

The Real World

This returns me to the title of this article. The human mind is not motivated by improvements in Ground Contact Time or a nice trendline for your Running Stress Score. Even if the intellectual mind could be fooled into considering this a primary aim, your subconscious mind (the ultimate arbiter) will find it irrelevant. No prolonged success can happen without the blessing of your subconscious mind. It’s needs must be met at all times or it will punish you (usually with pain – it’s way of saying ‘I don’t like how you are spending our time’).

Now: learning to run for 2 hours or completing a lap of a 400m track in 60 seconds or less constitutes real world goals. So does breaking 40 minutes for the 10 km distance or gaining the ability to run 7 days per week as a matter of choice. So does covering a certain well known mountain course close to your house in 1 hours 50 minutes this week and then hoping to do it in 1 hour and 48 minutes without too much extra effort the next time. So does running for specific reasons important to you and you alone as long as they are not delusional or dishonest (if you love running for the attention it get’s you, do not tell yourself it is for some higher cause – the subconscious will not be deceived). In my experience whenever runners run for reasons that are not entirely their own, pain results (psychosomatic – i.e. ‘physiological changes causing pain in tissues created by the subconscious mind’).

True deep motivation and connection to our goals (which will help meet the needs of our selfish, childish and overprotective subconscious) can only be gained through connection to real-world goals.

Implications

As a coach it is easy to be a nerd. The coach can survive this flaw as long as he does not transfer it onto his athletes. The runner can survive this as long as he or she does not let it get out of hand. The primary goals set for a runner or that you set, as a runner, for yourself  must be concrete. Not only does this mean they must be primary metrics, the goals should make sense in a normal conversational sentence containing no three-letter acronyms and no jargon. Yes ‘reach an ATL of 2000, three weeks out from my peak race’ will not cut muster. ‘Complete a 2 hour easy run and a 1 hour steady run through gradual progress in the next 6 weeks’ will pass.

Every workout we do is a task set for our bodies to solve. I want to delve into this more in upcoming posts. For the moment I bring it up only to support what I am trying to express here: you were designed to solve problems in the real world not the unreal world. Your body and mind (which are the same thing, it’s unfortunate language has provided two words for it) will respond better to focusing on a real world concrete task. Everything becomes easier: measuring progress, keeping motivation, planning the steps to complete the task.

So – no measurements?

Does this make other measurement irrelevant? We revert to my principle above: ‘Use your measurements to answer rather than create questions.’ This means if my stated goal was to progress to 9 hours of weekly running at intensities that will be beneficial for my long-term healthy, I can go into my data to look at heart rates and stress scores to see if the condition was met – does the data suggest I was straining rather than training?

Questions can also be asked ‘on the run’ by a look at the watch. My question might be as simple as ‘this feels a bit faster than I expected’ which a look at the watch can confirm or disconfirm. Like in almost every case, the question is never whether we should use something or not (a gun, a running metric, a treatment) but how we should use it.

Summary: keep your overall training and racing goals tethered to real world practical outcomes. Use more esoteric measures only to answer concrete questions that arise during the process of achieving these goals.

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The disappearance of the pre-season

In most sports a strong distinction exists between the competitive season and the pre-season. Take the English Premiership where the club squads spent the summer months preparing the bodies for a long and grueling season. They need this period in order to create the fitness necessary to sustain the rigours of the long season full of matches and to create a new level of performance by having time to develop new physical, mental, technical and tactical skills, something which cannot easily be done in the midst of a hectic match schedule.

Seasons without end

Both competitive and fun runners now find themselves in a season superficially without any real end and no real beginning. Almost any kind of race can be raced at any time of the year and even the disciplines that are not available year-round – such as cross-country and track – can stretch over 5 or 6 months. This creates a culture of perpetual racing and constant need to step-up and be ‘on duty’ for the loyal club runner or a source of ever-present temptation for the fun runner.

Because coaches are under a certain amount of pressure to create interesting sessions and often do not feel they can justify their position by saying ‘well, tonight we’re going to do 60 minutes easy to steady together’, we lose even more of the traditional focus of a pre-season. We have hard sessions and races of all types available – or even pushed at us – year-round, often by well-meaning coaches who are pushing these sessions on athletes because they themselves feel under pressure by the perceived expectations of their athletes. Coaches become part of the entertainment industry, rather than educators and mentors.

Full potential?

This does not create an environment for realising the full potential of each athlete. Without a long dedicated period of mainly easy to moderate training without any distractions or set-backs caused by hard racing or prematurely intense workouts, runners never get a chance to really develop especially the basic abilities. When injury rears its head it becomes particularly troublesome because the physical and mental preparedness of the athlete will be lower than ever when he or she returns to running. More often than not they will feel the temptation – or duty towards club or coach – to resume racing action well before it is advisable.

When the pre-season still existed

Moving back in time to 1950ies and 1960ies New Zealand when master coach Arthur Lydiard laid out the foundations for much of today’s training practices, a very distinct season existed:

  • 12 weeks X-country schedule
  • 6 weeks Road Racing (2 mile schedule)
  • 10 weeks Marathon conditioning
  • 6 weeks hills
  • 10 weeks Track Schedule
  • 4 – 6 weeks track racing
  • 2- 4 weeks off training

The period of cross-country and road-racing was not considered too seriously and as a form of preparation for the pre-season which Lydiard labelled ‘marathon conditioning’. This consisted of 10 weeks although in his later books he recommended spending as much as 3 to 6 months preparing the body for harder training and racing. In this he mirrored the earlier advice of Percy Cerutty who dedicated 6 months of every year to ‘General conditioning’ and focusing on simply ‘getting stronger’ with 3 months of race practice and 3 months competition.

As a club coach, I advise that coaches clearly bulk out a sizeable part of the year – or even two parts (one in Summer, one in Winter) as dedicated ‘pre-season’ where racing should take a complete backseat and no high intensity workouts are done. The focus is purely on creating a new performance level, clearing up old injuries and moving past them and work on the areas holding the runner back. This could be done by not insisting every member of the club, for instance, be ready and available for the entire cross-country season or to train straight through most of the races (as Percy Cerutty’s athletes used to do) not paying them too much respect but merely treating them as a hard steady workout in the middle of the winter season. This means sometimes putting the needs of the individual higher than the needs of the club. A difficult but necessary balancing act for coaches to take upon themselves as we tend to be the main catalysts of the environment that exists around our athletes.

This way many athletes would be able to dedicate the dark and wet months from November to February mainly to training or, for athletes with a longer season, perhaps the period January to March or April. The mid-summer can also serve as a good period for pre-season if Autumn objectives are very important for the runner or the club. But this means avoiding the temptation of the many summer races and the club putting on workouts of a steadier more endurance-focused nature during that period. Smaller clubs struggle to accommodate this but there are solutions – such as providing your runners with heart rate or pace ceilings so that the person doing ‘pre-season’ is running ‘easy to steady’ in a workout where a runner further along the peaking curve is doing ‘steady to hard’.

Happy festive season and I hope the seasonal spirit of this post was of use to you going into 2017.