How to improve your performance (and experience) by running less

Do you like variety in your training?  Are you feeling burned out by running?  Are you struggling to get the improvement you want?  Do you need more flexibility in your training schedule?  Are you concerned about injuries?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, consider running only 3 times per week.

Overview of the 3-day per week approach

Developed by the Furman Institute for Running and Science Training (FIRST) and popularized in the book Run Less, Run Faster, the 3-day per week running approach has many devoted followers.  While I have seen the approach used for longer distances (10 miles, half marathon, marathon and up), the concepts also work for shorter distance races.

With the 3-day per week running approach, each run has a specific goal and cross training replaces “junk” miles (runs without a specific goal).  The rationale is simple – get the most benefit from each mile you run and avoid the pounding that doesn’t help.

The 3 key runs per week are described below.  As you consider each type of run, adapt the distance and pace to your specific needs.

  • Speed.  This workout aims to improve leg speed, running efficiency, and ability to run at high intensity.  The workout consists of shorter intervals at fast pace and high intensity.  One example of a speed run is 10 x half mile @ 6 minute per mile pace.
  • Tempo.  This workout aims to improve your ability to sustain pace over time.  The workout consists of medium length intervals at medium pace.  One example of a tempo run is 6 x 2 miles @ 6.30 per mile pace.
  • Long.  This workout aims to improve endurance.  The workout consists of running long distance with a mix of slow to medium pace.  Ideally, the end of your long run should be your fastest pace since this simulates actual racing experience.  One example of a long run is a 23 mile run, with each mile in the second half being faster than the previous one.

None of the runs described above is “just go out and run some miles.”  Each run has a specific goal, and each is run at a serious intensity.  That’s the critical idea behind the 3 day per week approach – fewer miles, but the same or more quality miles.

Cross training is the other critical component of the 3-day per week approach.  You should cross train 2 days per week.  Cross training aims to improve aerobic fitness (i.e., your cardiovascular system) without putting stress and pounding on the muscles you use to run.  That way, you can run hard the next day.  Potential cross training activities include bicycle rides (my favorite), swimming, rowing, racquetball, or even yoga.  You can get creative here.  You’ll gain the most benefit by doing intense cross training workouts, but you can improve by doing lower intensity workouts.  The key is to cross-train while remaining fresh for your runs.

So far I’ve described 5 days of workouts.  What about the other 2 days?  You have many options – you can stretch, rest, do drills or plyometrics, or work on your strength.  I like workouts such as pilates and yoga to develop strength and flexibility.  The key is to get enough rest so that you are fresh for your runs.

Sounds good, but does it work?

Most research suggests that the 3-day per week running approach reduces injuries and improves performance, but (as usual) there are cases where it has not worked.  It typically depends on the individual – did you implement the approach correctly?  Did your body respond?

The 3-day per week approach has been fantastic for me.  After experiencing a couple of overuse injuries in 2001 and 2002, I decided (without knowing about the formal 3-day per week approach) to reduce my running miles and increase my bike riding.  The results speak for themselves – I’ve been free of overuse injuries (even got rid of my orthotics) and my marathon PR improved consistently over the past 5-6 years.

Here are the aspects of the 3-day per week that I like most:

  • Flexibility.  I can re-arrange my runs and cross training to accommodate the weather or family commitments.  I like to ride my bike outside and don’t mind running in rain, so I will shift my schedule to get my bike rides in on dry days.  If we get a lot of rain in a week, I may go inside for my ride.
  • Reduced injury risk.  Moving to a 3-day per week running schedule eliminated my overuse injuries.
  • Variety.  I really enjoy the variety; it helps me avoid burnout and stay focused when I run.  I love to ride my bike, and this approach gives me the opportunity to do that.  It also works well if you are considering a triathlon, since training for one discipline can be considered cross-training for another.

Want to learn more?  Check out the FIRST web site for details.  The FIRST site (and many others) has specific workouts that you can use for each type of run.

Let me know your thoughts.  Do all of your runs have a goal?  Are your runs mostly “quality” miles?  Have you tried this approach?  What is your experience?  Post a comment below.


Sports Science: Is it worth the effort?

Most of us have learned chemistry and physics as part of our education.  Did you like those subjects?  I did not – aside from their complexity, I could never figure out how to make chemistry or physics knowledge useful.

Until now.

Why now?  Chemistry and physics form the basis of sports science, which is the application of scientific principles to improve sports performance.  A good working knowledge of sports science can help someone achieve new levels of running performance.

Sports science typically includes the following areas:

  • Physiology.  The study of chemical processes that occur within the body.  Sports physiology focuses on how exercise influences the neuromuscular system, energy systems, and cardio-respiratory system.

An example of applied physiology is marathon training and the energy systems.  Marathon runners make heavy use of their “aerobic” energy system (as opposed to their “anaerobic” energy system).  So a major focus of marathon training is optimizing the aerobic energy system for sustained performance.

  • Biomechanics.  The study of how physics and physical anatomy combine to influence human performance.  Sports biomechanics focuses on how the laws of physics apply to work for (or against) athletes, and how to leverage (or mitigate) the laws of physics to improve performance.

An example of applied biomechanics is running posture, its affect on the center of mass, and the performance implications.  The center of mass for a human is near the hips.  Running with an upright posture keeps the center of mass near the hips, allowing the body to effectively absorb ground impact and apply force to maintain forward momentum.  Running with an excessive lean changes the location of the center of mass, causing the body to absorb ground impact in a sub-optimal location, which increases injury risk and limits performance.

  • Psychology.  The study of mind and behavior and its impact on performance.  Sports psychology is probably familiar to most runners, though we may not know it.

One example of applied psychology is the mental preparation that a runner might go through for a race (getting “psyched up”).  Another example is when a runner repeats a mantra over and over to stay focused.

A couple weekends ago I spent about twenty hours in a classroom learning about sports science, training theory, and training design.  I emerged, drained, with a mixed perspective.  I am excited by the potential impact of sports science, but I am also challenged by the material.  It is complicated and challenging, and applying it requires substantial time and effort.

As I consider my immersion into sports science, I keep coming back to this question:

There is no doubt that sports science will improve performance, but is it worth the time and effort to learn, understand, translate and apply the knowledge?

That is, how much can we improve by knowing the science behind running compared to simply seeking out and applying advice based on common sense?  Will the benefits of knowing the science justify the time and effort to learn and apply it?  Would it be more worthwhile to just hire a coach who (presumably) already knows the science?

I plan to explore these questions over the coming months by continuing to immerse myself in sports science.  I will report back as appropriate with a perspective based on my experience.

What do you think?  Have you been exposed to sports science?  Do you think it’s worthwhile to invest time and effort into learning and applying it?  Post a comment and let me know.

Do we know how much we eat? Or why we eat that much?

Eating habits have a dramatic effect on your running experience.  Excess weight reduces running performance and increases injury risk.  But eating habits are about more than just excess weight – shifting to a more nutritious diet can also improve your overall running experience by giving your body what it needs to recover and perform well.

Our awareness of our own eating habits is a central theme of the book Mindless Eating:  Why we eat more than we think by Brian Wansink.  Brian Wansink is a Ph. D., university professor, and researcher who studies consumer behavior and nutritional science.

I have long struggled with maintaining consistently good eating habits.  Therefore, I excitedly picked up Mindless Eating; I hoped to gain insight into my eating habits and how I could improve them.

Comments on Mindless Eating:  Why we eat more than we think

In Mindless Eating:  Why we eat more than we think, Brian Wansink delivers a unique and compelling perspective on why we eat so much and, therefore, how we can eat less.

Chapter 1 of Mindless Eating outlines the author’s basic argument:

1)  The environment around us heavily influences both what and how much we eat.  This typically happens without our explicit awareness (thus “Mindless” in the title).

2)  If the environment exerts a heavy influence, we can improve our food choices (eat better and/or eat less) by changing our environment to work in our favor.

3)  Changing our environment to work in our favor gives us a greater chance of losing weight and eating better.  This is because small, “mindless” changes in our eating habits are more likely to “stick.”

Wansink devotes most of the book (chapters 2-9) to supporting his argument using normal, every-day life situations.  Topics include what influences portion size, how packaging affects our food choices, and how past experience affects our eating habits.  He uses numerous research studies to prove his points.  Each chapter provides suggestions for changing our environment to help us eat better.  The final chapter summarizes Wansink’s suggestions for improving our eating habits.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in human behavior, not just anyone who wants to lose weight or change their eating habits.  Here are some other positive aspects of the book:

  • I could identify with the scenarios that Wansink describes – his research includes familiar situations (e.g., family dinners, restaurants).
  • It was a refreshing, easy read – Wansink mixes theory, research, stories, humor, and recommendations well.
  • I felt good when I finished – Wansink refrains from being critical of people.
  • Wansink also highlights ways that we can use “mindless eating” ideas to our advantage.  For example, we can get our children to eat more fruits and vegetables by serving those items on larger plates.
  • Wansink acknowledges realities such as (a) we can’t completely change our diets overnight, (b) sometimes we like to eat things that are not healthy, and (c) many diet plans are not easy to continue following.

Overall, Wansink more than proves his argument; he provides insight into human behavior and an interesting, fun read.

Putting Mindless Eating into action

As I read the book, I started to become aware of eating habits that had previously been “mindless” for me.  Specific examples include:

  • The Handful.  I spend a lot of time in the pantry taking handfuls of cereal, granola, nuts, and pretzels.  Big containers in convenient places are a challenge for me.
  • See food, eat food.  I once tried to put a candy jar on my desk at work.  It was a clear (see-through) glass jar.  Bad idea.  In about a week, I had eaten so much candy that I had to ditch the candy jar.  It’s the same at home – if food is visible, I am more likely to eat it.
  • My eating scripts.  I started to identify specific scenarios in which I would mindlessly over-eat.  One example is the “get-home-from-work” script, where I would immediately head to the pantry for snacks even though I would be eating dinner in ten minutes.  Another example is that I over-eat snacks when I’ve had a really bad day or when I’ve had a really good day.

While Mindless Eating helped me gain awareness of my eating habits, I had difficulty applying the Mindless Eating techniques.  For example, standing in the pantry after getting home from work, I found myself thinking “I’m in the middle of my get-home-from-work script.”  Yet I couldn’t actually stop myself from executing my script and over-eating.  So while the book helped me gain great awareness of my eating habits and provided techniques for improving them, something was still missing.

Motivation was the missing ingredient, as I discovered upon reflection.  I needed sufficient motivation to actually apply the techniques I learned in the book.  Without motivation, I found myself unable to make the changes necessary to achieve my goals.

My journey to more mindful eating has just begun.  I’m happy with my newfound awareness and eager to continue applying these techniques.  If I gain any additional insights, I will be sure to report them back.

What about you?  Are you aware of your eating habits?  Have you read the book?  What did you think?  Reply by posting comments.

Focus: The 80 20 rule for running

“Often he who does too much does too little.”    – Italian Proverb

Most of us would like to spend more time on our running or fitness, but we just don’t have the time.  We have other obligations and responsibilities that prevent us from devoting more time to improve our running.  How can you get the most out of your available time?  Try using the 80 20 rule.  By allocating your available time according to the 80 20 rule, you could dramatically improve your results.

Quick overview of 80 20 rule (1) and how it applies to running

The 80 20 rule is also known as the Pareto Principle or “Vital Few and Trivial Many” rule.  Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) was an Italian economist who, in 1906, observed that 20% percent of the Italian people owned 80% percent of the country’s accumulated wealth.  Over time, that observation has been applied in many different contexts.  It evolved into the principle that only a small percentage (20%) of a person’s effort is responsible for a large percentage (80%) of their results.

According to the 80 20 rule, the key to success is to identify and focus on that small number of activities (the 20%) that will generate the biggest results for your running.  We are all unique as runners – each of us has our own goals, strengths and weaknesses, preferences, and abilities.  So the 20% will differ for each of us.  The key question is “how do I identify the vital few activities that will generate the biggest results for me?”

How to determine your “20%” or “Vital Few”

Start by evaluating your goals, current state of fitness, past experience, and other factors that could influence your success.  If you intend to race, review the course, typical weather conditions, and your experience in similar races.  If you want to lose weight or otherwise get fit, identify the factors that have worked (and not worked) for you in the past.  Assess all the areas that could affect your fitness, including sleep, rest and recovery, nutrition, and your mindset.

Consider these questions:

  • Have you been able to get your workouts in, or do you have trouble starting?  Your focus areas might include being consistent in your workouts.
  • Does the course have a feature that could influence your results (e.g., hills, extreme flats)?  This feature may influence your “vital few.”
  • What is your experience with that kind of race?  Have you had the same problem consistently?  For example, many people fade at the end of a race.  Addressing that problem may influence your “vital few.”
  • Are there unknowns or new circumstances that you’ve never encountered before?  These are often the source of the “20%.”  For example, if you are trying a longer distance for the first time, one potential area of focus could be making sure you can run the distance.
  • What is your injury status?  Are you injury-free or recovering from an injury?  This will almost certainly affect your “vital few.”

After considering these questions, identify the 3-4 areas that you need to get right in order to achieve your goal.  Then create a training plan focused on those areas.

The 80 20 rule does not imply that you can succeed by completely neglecting aspects of your fitness.  You need to maintain a balance between training, rest and recovery, nutrition, and mental focus to succeed.  For example, most of us will not improve if we get only 3 hours of sleep per night, even if we apply the 80 20 rule perfectly.  The 80 20 rule works within a balanced set of activities.

Example:  my areas of focus for Pikes Peak

To give you a concrete example, here is how I got to my “vital few” when I ran the 2010 Pikes Peak marathon.

I had enough marathon experience going into Pikes Peak, and I did not have any recurring problems to worry about.  However, I quickly realized that Pikes Peak would not be a typical marathon.  There were several unknowns:

  • I had never run uphill for 13 consecutive miles
  • I had never raced on trails
  • I had never raced at Pikes Peak altitude (6,000 feet going to 14,000 feet)
  • The course conditions could be very different at the bottom of the mountain (start / finish) compared to the top of the mountain (middle of the race)

These unknowns heavily influenced my “vital few:”

  • Build strength and endurance, both physically and mentally.  Mental and physical strength and endurance would help me cope with the stress of uphill racing and the changing conditions.
  • Lose weight.  It would be easier to drag less weight up Pikes Peak.
  • Gain trail running experience.  I did not want Pikes Peak to be my first experience with trail running.

Next, I developed a training plan that emphasized my “vital few.”  I chose to do more strength and endurance work and reduce the amount of speed work.  I made different choices in my eating habits.  Finally, I created new training runs on local trails instead of on roads.

Reflecting on my results at Pikes Peak, the 80 20 rule was clearly at work.  Focusing on the vital few had a dramatic impact on my success.  However, identifying the vital few is not easy – it requires thought.  The 80 20 rule also requires you to make choices – you need to stop some activities to focus on the vital few.  But if you can identify the vital few and make the right choices, your results will show it.

What do you think?  What are your vital few?  Need help figuring it out?  Drop me a comment or an email.

(1)  Main source for Pareto Principle information – click here

7 tips for setting running goals

Is your running performance stagnant?  Do you feel aimless or have difficulty getting out the door?  Is your New Year’s resolution to get fit a thing of the past?  Do you want to get fit this spring?  Are you achieving your goals but still feeling blah?

If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, perhaps you should evaluate your running goals.  Goals are incredibly powerful.  It’s difficult to stay on course with fitness – weather, work, sickness, and the other aspects of your life need attention.  The best goals inspire and motivate you, and you feel rewarded when you’ve accomplished them.

Here are some tips that I find useful in setting my running goals.  Everyone is different, so tune your goals to your unique situation.  Try the tips that you think will help, leave the rest.  Let me know what works and what doesn’t.

1.  Match specificity to timeframe.  Each goal should have a timeframe associated with it.  The goals that are closer should be more specific than the goals that are farther away.  This allows you to adjust your specific goals as the timeframe approaches.

For example, suppose you are a new runner and you want to finish a 10K six months from now.  Start with a goal of simply finishing the race – don’t set a specific time goal.  As the race gets closer and you gain running experience, you can consider setting a specific time goal.

2.  Think small.  Break down longer term goals into a series of smaller goals.  Achieving the smaller goals keeps you motivated, and assessing your performance against the smaller goals helps you adjust your larger goals over time.

For example, if your goal is to run a marathon this fall, set specific running goals for each month.  These should challenge you to train well.  Assessing your performance against the monthly goals will help you refine your marathon goal (as the race gets closer).  This idea works together with the first tip above, and it also fits well with the powerful concept of periodization.

3.  Think balance.  I cannot overstate the importance of balance in your efforts to get more fit.  Achieving a fitness goal requires attention to more than just your specific area of fitness.  Consider setting goals related to your daily habits such as eating and sleeping.  Perhaps you should watch less TV.  Balanced goals can make a real difference in your performance and experience.

For example, I am currently recovering from a race and starting to think about my next race.  One of my major goals is to get more sleep – I’m aiming for an average of 6 hours of sleep each day.  I know this will help in many aspects of my life, including my running performance.

4.  Think outside the box.  Dare to dream – variety can motivate you.  There are many ways to set goals that are outside the box.  Options include a new distance (longer or shorter), a different kind of race (e.g., trail race, relay), or a different city.  A different goal gives you something new to look forward to and helps vary your training to keep it fresh.

For example, if you’ve run the same marathon every year for 7 years, consider a different marathon.  Or, if you typically run 10K races, consider a half marathon.  Another option is to gather a group of people and run a long distance relay race.  Perhaps the most famous long distance relay is Hood to Coast, but you can find many more online (try here for a list).

5.  Assess your starting point.  Realistically (and honestly) assess your current state of fitness.  Set your goals accordingly.  Attempting to achieve goals that are too aggressive often leads to either injury or de-motivation (when you find yourself missing your goals).

For example, if you have not run for a while, resist the temptation to base your goals on your previous races.  Give yourself time to build up your fitness.

6.  Consider the commitment.  Ask yourself:  ‘Can I make the commitment required to achieve this goal?’  Answering this question typically requires an assessment of the other aspects of your life.  Will your job limit your ability to train, are your personal relationships strong enough to handle the added stress of training, do you have family obligations that will prevent you from putting in the time and effort?

For example:  in late 2008 I was seriously considering running the 2009 Pikes Peak marathon.  At the end of 2008, my wife and I found out that we were having a baby in late summer 2009.  I had to postpone Pikes Peak because other priorities would keep me from the training necessary to run Pikes Peak well.

7.  Give it meaning.  Create goals that will mean something when you achieve them.  A PR is one way to create meaning, but there are others – reward yourself after hitting your goals, find a tough course, or run for a loved one or good cause.  When it’s 37 degrees and raining outside, a meaningful running goal often means the difference between crawling back under the covers and getting out the door.

Once you set your goals, revisit them regularly.  Stuff happens.  Circumstances change.  It’s perfectly fine to change your goals as your life changes.

What do you think?  Do these tips make sense?  How do you set your running goals?  Add a comment and let me know.

Introduction: What is your running breakthrough?

Want to achieve a breakthrough with running?  This blog is for you.

Achieving a breakthrough is doing something important that you’ve never done before (or haven’t done in a while).  Most runners think of a breakthrough as setting a PR(Personal Record).  I think of a breakthrough as more than that – a breakthrough is anything you make it out to be:

  • Running a distance you’ve never run before
  • Running consistently, when you’ve “never been a runner”
  • Finding your running groove after having a child, losing a loved one, or going through a difficult period at work
  • Coming back from an injury
  • Completing a huge running challenge
  • Losing weight with the help of running

In many cases, the breakthrough is more about life than it is about running.

During the 10+ years that I’ve been running and racing, I’ve learned what it takes to achieve a breakthrough.  Here are some of mine:

  • Finishing in 14th place (out of nearly 700 runners) at the 2010 Pikes Peak marathon.  Pikes Peak is considered one of the world’s most difficult marathons.
  • Winning the first 50K I ever entered – the Post Oak Challenge.
  • Improving my marathon PR from just over 3:32 to just over 2:52, a difference of 40 minutes (almost 20%).  I did this over 9 years and 13 races (setting a PR in 12 of them).
  • Sticking with running while having kids, changing jobs, moving, and struggling to keep everything in balance.

I’m hoping this blog will help you achieve your specific running breakthrough.  I intend to share the lessons I’ve learned over the past 10 years and the ones I continue to learn every day.  Most of the lessons are about running and racing; some of them are about running and life.  Some topics that you can expect to see are:

  • Training.  What worked and did not work for me
  • Nutrition.  The ongoing struggle to eat right
  • Rest and recovery.  How to get the right amount
  • Footwear, gear and accessories.  What worked and did not work for me
  • Fun.  How to keep running fun and not take it too seriously
  • Mental / emotional.  Matters of the head and heart
  • Racing.  Race strategy and preparation, what to do on race day
  • Life.  How to fit everything in; the effect of running on life and vice versa

Until you tell me otherwise, this blog will focus less on theory and more on action – figuring out what works for you.  I am an avid reader, and most of my breakthroughs originated in a magazine, web site, or blog that I read.  The hard work has been to apply new ideas to my running habits – to experiment, tweak, and tune the ideas so they helped me.  In some cases I could not make an idea work for me, so I abandoned it.  In this blog, I plan to share the lessons I learned during this ongoing experimentation process.

I expect to post two to three entries per week, so please check in to see what is new.

I hope you will participate in this blog – I would appreciate hearing your comments, topic ideas, experiences, and lessons learned.  My hope is that the conversation will help all of us.  I have tried to make it easy for you to participate in the conversation, but I am always open to suggestions on how to make it even easier.

Looking forward to the journey…