The Running Conundrum

I am not a runner.

That does not mean I don’t value running or marvel at running or think that it isn’t a critical component of general fitness.

What first opened my eyes to the importance of being able to run well was a CrossFit documentary (I don’t recall the name of it) in which several of their top athletes were working with Chris Hinshaw who seems to be the de facto “aerobic coach” for games-level competitors.

In that documentary, Hinshaw has all the female athletes line up in the end zone of a football field and sprint down to the other end zone – a 100 meter dash, give or take. Within 20 meters one athlete already had a 10 meter lead on the competition. And just watching that clip it became abundantly clear that woman was just more capable than everyone else who lined up.

Turns out that woman was Tia-Clair Toomey who has since won the CrossFit Games twice and has competed in Weightlifting at a small local meet also known as the Olympic Games.

I also think that the Kenyan long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge’s recent record-setting time at the Berlin Marathon of 2:01:39 is one of the greatest athletic accomplishments of the past 20 years (maybe ever). If you’ve ever run any type of race before then you hopefully have some context on how amazingly absurd it is to run a 4:38 mile pace for over 26 miles.

So you can see that I appreciate running. But the fact remains that I am not a runner. Which may cause you to discount everything I’m about to say. And I wouldn’t blame you if you do.

However, not being in the running community might just make me the perfect person to comment on it. I’m just an interested, impartial, outside observer. I haven’t fallen for any of the dogma or accepted conventions that can become prevalent in any sport with a deep heritage. I’m like the Elon Musk of running. I want to reinvent it. And that may lead to me completely rethinking the role of the combustible engine in automobiles. It may also lead to me inventing self-driving cars that run people over. Sometimes you are going to break some eggs.

The Root of The Problem

Let’s get this out of the way first: what I’m about to dissect has nothing to do with the training methodology of elite-level, professional runners. Well, maybe I should rephrase that. It has nothing to do with the elites training like the elites. But it does have everything to do with the recreational, intermediate-level runner using similar training programs and weekly mileage goals as those high-level runners. And I see that shit happening all the time.

Here’s how it usually goes. A person does their first marathon (or half or 10k or even 5k) with the hopes of just finishing it. They used to be athletic in high school but the subsequent 15 years of college, building a career, getting married and having kids have taken them far away from their physical peak. And the ability to complete a race seems to have become the arbiter of whether or not you still “have it” and can return to your former glory. So this weekend warrior finds or buys one of the “from couch to marathon” training programs and follows about 80% of it.

And they do it. They complete the race with a slow time. But time wasn’t the point. The goal was to finish. And they feel great about it.

But now they have the taste for blood. They want to do it again. They want to do it faster. So they buy a new program or hire a coach. They get a watch that can track their miles. They download apps that can track their course. They’re buying stock in Body Glide. They become enthusiasts.

And that’s awesome. And that enthusiasm is rewarded with faster and faster finishes over the next 3 or 4 races.

While this seems like a good thing (and it is!) it’s also where the problems start. It’s where the weekly mileage ticks up. Where the injuries start. Where the expectations change.

It’s where the recreational runner starts to fall into the trap. Actually, it’s three separate traps.

Trap 1: More is better

On the surface it makes sense that the more experience you accumulate the more volume you’d be able to add to your program. And this drives the intermediate runner from the 12-20 miles per week they were racking up when they first started to upwards of 50 miles per week in a relatively short period of time. Add on top of that they’ve also gotten faster and now you are more than doubling the mileage while also increasing intensity.

While it’s not an apples to apples comparison for many reasons, an elite strength athlete would never do this because they know the results would be a disaster. An 800-pound squatter would never take as many near maximal attempts in training as a 400-pound squatter. Even though both lifters may be in the same condition to take max attempts, the bigger squatter is still a human being after all and 800 pounds on your back affects you a hell of a lot more than 400 pounds does.

And while running does not tax your system to degree of maximal squatting, it still taxes your system. So the thought that adding volume (miles) and intensity (speed) can continue to occur without a decrease in performance, injury or burnout is just not realistic. Yet this seems to be the philosophy and principle behind so many programs.

“Oh, you’re getting faster? Great! Do more. And go faster.”

This might even work if it weren’t for one very big flaw. All of this increase in intensity and volume is not accompanied by required lifestyle change. It’s not as if these runners suddenly quit their jobs or stop going out to dinner with their wives in order to go to bed at 9PM or stop helping their kids with their homework so they can meal prep for the next day. They can barely carve out enough time to get in all that extra mileage on their program.

And this is usually when the injuries kick in. Which leads us directly to Trap numero dos.

Trap #2: Staying Out Of The Gym

Even though Kipchoge is way, way, way faster than I am, I bet you I can out squat him. By a lot. In fact, I’d be surprised if he squats at all. Therefore, if you want to get better at running there is no reason to squat or strength train at all, for that matter. Right?

Wrong. I’ll say it again. If you are reading this you are likely not an elite level distance runner. You probably don’t have the genetics, support system and lifestyle that sub-2:30 marathoners possess. And this is why strength training is critical for someone like you.

I’m not saying that you need to be as strong as a powerlifter or as technically proficient as an Olympic-style weightlifter, but a strength program designed to compliment your lifting will make you more resilient, less prone to injury and may even make you faster.

And I’m not talking about some bodyweight bullshit that you are hitting during the rest periods of your indoor running class but actual resistance training in multiple planes of motion with varying intensities.

Trap #3: You’re Expecting Too Much

Chances are, if you’ve run multiple half or full marathons, you’ve seen a dramatic improvement in race times. That first marathon – the one you were just hoping to finish – may have seen you crossing the finish line in 4 hours 10 minutes. Now, suddenly, four marathons later, you are on the cusp of a 3:30 finish. Nice!

Surely, in 3 more races from now you’ll be at the coveted three hour mark. Sorry to break it to you, friendo, but that is not how these things work. Just like newbie gains are a real thing in the gym (it’s pretty simple going from, say, a 100 pound to a 200 pound bench press), quick improvements are easy to come by in the running game. But going from a 3:30 to a 3 flat is the equivalent of going from 200 pounds to 350 pounds. And every 5 minutes after that is like adding 50 more pounds. Not easy.

Yet, this is the expectations many runners place on themselves which leads to insane training protocols and disappointing results. After those first few giant leaps forward you should expect to take a few seconds off your mile pace and a couple of minutes of your total time.

Believe me, if you understand training you understand that those few seconds are a huge accomplishment.

There’s no point in comparing yourself to Kipchoge or Tia-Clare. You can appreciate them. Marvel at them. Wish that their parents were your parents or that you grew up in the African running culture so you had a shot as being as good as them. But don’t fall into the trap of training like them.

Stay healthy. Be smart. Lift weights. Have reasonable and accomplishable expectations and you’ll have a long and successful running career.

And if you decide the road isn’t for you, we always have room for you in the squat rack.