Surge late…run great

“Un-be-leave-able!”  The announcer’s voice rose with each syllable.  “Can he do it?  Can Pikes Peak newcomer William Tronoski catch five time defending champion Matt Carpenter?”

“I don’t see why not!” responded the analyst.  “He’s made up over two miles since the turnaround at the summit, and he’s still coming!”

“Tronoski’s going to catch Carpenter at mile 25.  Just over one mile to go and the 2010 Pikes Peak marathon is a dead heat!” said the announcer.

The analyst broke in, “What will Tronoski do next?  Will he run with Carpenter and try to out-sprint him at the end?  Carpenter knows this course inside and out, so he’ll have an edge during the final mile.”

“We’re about to find out,” said the announcer.  “Here’s the catch…and Tronoski surges!  He accelerates past Carpenter, opening a 10 meter gap.  Carpenter is chasing!  …  Carpenter catches Tronoski … and Tronoski surges again!  He’s got another 10 meter gap.  Newcomer Tronoski is not backing down…”


That scenario played in my head on most of my 2010 Pikes Peak marathon training runs.  Late in the race, I’d surge past the leader.  The leader would catch me, and I’d surge again.  I’d keep surging through the end of the race, battling for the win.  I usually lost the race, but winning wasn’t important.

The scenario was just inspiration.  The important part was the surges, because surges make you a better runner.

Here’s why surges make you a better runner and how you can build them into your training.

Surges make you physically and mentally stronger

Surges disrupt your body’s efficiency.  When you run at a steady pace, your body optimizes itself to run at that pace.  You use as little fuel and produce as little waste as possible.  A surge forces your body out of its “comfort zone” – it uses more fuel and produces more waste than usual.

Eventually your body adapts to the higher intensity of the surge – you can run faster and longer.  Your body becomes more efficient at all paces.  You’re able to hold form, especially late in a race when most runners falter.

Surges improve your mental toughness and focus.  Surging is hard work, especially late in a run.  You must increase your intensity, give extra effort, and manage your form even though you’re feeling fatigue.  The later you surge, the tougher it is.  Your mind must dictate your body’s actions, overcoming the signals your body is sending.  This is the essence of mental toughness.

How to build surges into your training

Surges can last from 20 seconds to 10 minutes, with shorter durations being higher intensity.  You can incorporate them anywhere in a training run.  These articles (here and here) suggest adding surges as repeats in the middle of a long run.

My surges are typically on the shorter, higher intensity end of the spectrum.  Most of my surges are between 1 and 3 minutes.  I like to add surges late in my training runs (including after my speed work), and they don’t follow a pattern.  Making them random simulates what I might experience in a race, and it makes them seem less like training.  I’ll start a surge when I feel the wind hit me, see a car passing, or see a bird take off from a tree.

Adding surges to my training has paid big dividends for me.  The 2010 Pikes Peak marathon scenario I imagined above never materialized, but I finished stronger than expected despite 80-degree temperatures.  I also used surges to overcome fatigue and stay ahead of my nearest competitor late in the 2011 Post Oak Challenge 50K.

Get started:
Add a set of surges to one of your training runs.  Start with one or two surges, and add them anywhere in the run.  Let me know what happens by posting a comment.

Or, post a comment to let me know your experience with surges.  Have you tried them?  Have they helped?


My wakeup call from Jack Daniels

Jack Daniels was sitting on the shelf, beckoning me.  Every time I opened the cabinet, I saw him and felt the urge to pull him out.  I resisted for a couple months, telling myself the time wasn’t right.  Truth be told, I was worried about what would happen when I opened it.

Finally, unable to sustain my resistance, I opened Daniels’ Running Formula by Jack Daniels.  Called “the world’s best running coach” by Runner’s World, Jack Daniels is a legendary exercise physiologist, researcher and coach.  Daniels’ book, Daniels’ Running Formula, is a training bible for runners and coaches.  Developed during years of working with runners, it’s loaded with information, advice, workouts, and programs for races from 800 meters to the marathon.

I resisted opening it because I was nervous that it might expose my home-grown training program as inadequate.  Over the years, I had become comfortable with a series of workouts that I developed.  While it was based on sound sports science principles, my home-grown training program was a product of my reading and experimentation, not serious study and research.

My First Lesson

I leafed through Daniels’ Running Formula, mapping my workouts to Daniels’ recommendations.  The first workout I checked was today’s planned “speedwork.”  I immediately gained a valuable insight – my “speedwork” wasn’t providing the maximum benefits I expected.

My “speedwork” was actually a middle ground between (in Daniels terms) the threshold (T) zone (meant to improve endurance) and the intervals (I) zone (meant to stress aerobic power).  Middle ground wasn’t a good place:

  • I wasn’t getting the maximum endurance benefit of a threshold workout – my intervals were too short and my recovery was too long.
  • I wasn’t getting the maximum aerobic power benefit of interval training – my intensity was too low, my intervals were too long, and my recovery was too short.

Daniels’ Running Formula improved my training before I even hit the road – it helped me refine my workouts to deliver maximum benefit.

My Second Lesson

I eagerly headed out for my modified speedwork intervals.  I decided to increase the intensity, shorten the distance, and increase the recovery duration.

Wow, did I get a wakeup call!

I couldn’t hold the intensity.  I wasn’t even close.  My first interval was ok, but the rest were rough.  I slowed down dramatically from the first interval to the second.

I’m thankful that I discovered this problem now so I can fix it before my next race.

Am I glad I opened the book?

I’m a creature of habit; I suspect most runners are.  Sometimes my habits take over and I end up stagnating.  Daniels’ Running Formula has already shaken me out of my current habits.  At a minimum, it offers more objective and well-researched workout ideas.

A previous post in this blog questioned the relative value of sports science – is it worth the effort?  Daniels’ Running Formula is a challenging read – it includes a complicated theoretical foundation and a detailed set of training tables that require time and effort to navigate.  Will I get sufficient return for investing the time and effort required to dive deeply into Daniels’ Running Formula?  Should I take the leap of faith?

Even though Jack blew up my training today, I’m taking the leap.

The worst ways to improve your running, and how to avoid them

“There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight.”   — Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

Trial and error sucks as a training strategy.  You have about a 50% chance of improving, and you’re just as likely to get injured as to see dramatic success.  Chasing the latest fad or training idea is not the path to improvement.

The other end of the spectrum – stagnation – doesn’t work as a training strategy either.  Improving or succeeding requires getting out of your comfort zone, taking some risk.

Breakthrough running improvements require the right blend of new training with what’s worked for you in the past.

But how do you find the right blend?  How do you determine what elements of your training to keep?  How do you find the right new training ideas to try?

Runner – know thyself.

Success requires insight.  Developing insight enables you to walk the line between the scattershot of a trial and error strategy and the stagnation of a stay-the-course (change nothing) strategy.  Insight guides your decisions on what to keep, what to change, and what to try.

It’s easy to get overloaded with statistics, data, and information.  You can check your GPS, heart rate monitor, and watch for performance data.  You can track eating habits, nutrition labels, weight, and body fat percentage.  I even found an iPad app to track the time I spend sleeping.

Insight is more than all of this – it’s cutting through the data and information clutter to identify what really matters.  Developing insight requires analyzing the data to identify relevant trends, root causes, and levers that affect your performance.  The quality of your insights influences your probability of success more than any single element of training.

Getting to know yourself

Are you a left brain person or a right brain person?  Conventional wisdom suggests that left-brainers are more logical and analytical, whereas right-brainers are more creative and expressive.  Tap both sides of your brain to develop a great set of insights – it requires critical analysis and creative thinking.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Check your aim.  Re-orient yourself to your goal.  Your goal may be simple, such as maintaining your fitness.  Or it could be a far-reaching BHAG.  Regardless, reminding yourself of the original goal sets the frame for your insights.
  • Crunch the numbers.  A training log has mostly facts and statistics.  But the facts are a good place to start – review the past 12-18 months of data that you capture.  Do you see any trends?  Any recurring patterns?  If you don’t track any data, start a training log.
  • Consider the context.  Review your life and work situation to identify considerations or constraints.  How have life events affected the quantity and quality of your training?  Is work more or less busy?  Have you been traveling?  Are you under more stress?  Less stress?  Sometimes the most useful insights come from unexpected areas.
  • Chunk it up.  It’s hard to develop insights by looking at the big picture.  So break out and review each individual aspect of your training.  Review your workouts, your nutrition, rest and recovery separately.  What do you notice?  Are you satisfied with each individual aspect?  Or are one or more aspects lagging?
  • Look for cause and effect.  Try to uncover root causes for what you see in the numbers.  Do the trends make sense?  If your numbers are improving, what’s driving the improvement?  If they’re the same or worse, is there a reason?
  • Analyze your target.  If your goal involves a specific target race, review the course description, elevation map, and general race information.  Does the course present a challenge that you need to factor into your training?  Will it be extremely hilly or flat?  Are you running at altitude?  Will you be used to the expected temperature?
  • Take a test.  Running a test race is a great way to gather valuable information about your fitness.  If your goal involves a specific target race, look for a course that closely resembles your target race.  Test races (or test training runs) provide a virtual lab environment that you can use to develop insights.
  • Follow your instinct.  Your gut instinct and feelings are good sources for insight, especially if you are an experienced runner.  What have you been feeling lately?  After each workout, consider writing a quick thought on how your workout went.  These individual data points will become valuable as you analyze them in combination over longer periods of time.
  • Ask “what if…?”.  Sprinkle in at least one new idea that could improve your running performance.  New ideas expand your thinking and keep your training fresh.  What if you were to add a new type of workout?  What if you were to stretch after each long run?  Could you envision a different set of outcomes?

The process of developing insights is not sequential.  The intent is to learn something new and meaningful.  You may need to triangulate multiple data points and iterate several times before you discover the compelling insights.  Spend the time; it’s worthwhile.  You know you’re finished when you say “wow, I never realized…”.

A final note of caution

The process of developing insight is difficult.  If you dig deep enough, you may uncover information that you’d rather not see, or you may be tempted to beat yourself up over what you find.  Try to remain honest, objective, and free of judgement.  The goal is to inform and guide your future training, not to flog yourself over events of the past.

While insight is an essential input to a training strategy, it’s not a “once and done” proposition.  Regularly refreshing your insights is the best way to make sure that your training is on track and your running is improving.  So get started today!

And let me know what you think.  Did this post help you discover something that surprised you?  What worked for you in developing insights?  You can post a comment or send me an email.