It is well accepted that intervals will facilitate the attainment of one’s highest ability in competitive running and many other timed, set distance sports (e.g. cross country skiing, swimming, cycling, etc.). Examples of the extensive literature supporting the efficacy of interval training are too numerous to list but I link here to that which is available from the Lydiard Foundation here and a Lydiard video here.
For running, such interval workouts are typically completed in a track setting, although Lydiard and others are also proponents of hill bounding as well. Hill bounding intervals will be the subject of a separate post.
Interval workouts on the track have a number of advantages including a smooth, consistent running surface, a compact loop, and the ability to accurately gauge and compare times for set distances to monitor progress and assess speed development. In addition doing standard distances (400 m, 800 m, 1600 m, etc.) is very straight forward on a track. For trail running competitors, track workouts are a staple of most training programs.
When I completed my last 1/2 mile track race in college (yes, way back then we did the mile, 1/2 mile (880 yards), 1/4 mile (440 yards), etc. and even odd distances like 660 yards during the indoor season) I told the coach that that race was the last time he would see my butt running around an artificial oval in the middle of a field*. At that time I had recently discovered trail running and much preferred the aesthetic and did not see any reason to continue with track competitions. That position on track running has held for almost 40 years- I have yet to run a lap on a track since that late spring day in 1977. This works for me and I am in no way suggesting that track workouts are less enjoyable and/or inferior. I prefer the trail, many (most) others love the track.
Since those college days I have been a highly competitive Category 1/2 road cyclist, an expert and sometimes professional mountain biker, and a competitive cross country skier. In each sport intervals have played a major role in my training plans and, due to the nature of each of these sports, the intervals have always been conducted on actual race courses or terrain similar to race courses. For instance in mountain biking I developed a few single track trail loops that provided appropriate interval stimuli for the sport, e.g. loops of steep 7-10 min race pace (L5a-L5b) uphills followed by steep 5-8 min race pace downhills and loops of more gradual 15-20 min uphills followed by full recovery downs. These loops were utilized in a structured way to develop aerobic muscle endurance, anaerobic capacity, and power. They served me well.
Having moved into ultramarathons in the past couple of years, the need for interval sessions has become clear should I wish to progress any further. The same has been true for my efforts in competitive cross country skiing and I have written about that here and, partly, here. In the second post on training plans for the current running season, interval workouts are an integrated and fundamental thread. Two interval sessions per week are included in the program plan. I debated about how to accomplish these workouts…. on a track? or…. should I hold to my 1977 proclamation and follow the rigor I used previously in road cycling, mountain biking, and cross country skiing by completing intervals on race course-like trails. I decided on the latter for numerous reasons, not the least of which was the 1977 proclamation, but also because the nearest track is 12 miles away and the school gets touchy about use from time to time. Also, I noted that Rob Krar mentioned in an interview that he regularly utilizes the Buffalo Park Loop in Flag for some of his interval workouts. This is a park that I had run in many times when I lived in Arizona so I knew exactly what he was speaking of.
I went about developing some trail loops that would accommodate both “track-like” sessions as well as hill repeat sessions. I found an almost exactly 2 mile single track trail loop around a natural meadow with about 50 m (165 feet) of vertical ascention/descention per lap- perfect for doing on-trail mile repeats, 800 m, etc. Here is an image of the Meadow Loop:
…. and here is an example of an 8 X 1/2 mile LT (L5a)- L5b (80% recovery) repeat session (also showing the 3 km cool down segment):
I also found a nice 0.7 km/70 m, 10% grade uphill with a corresponding similar downhill that makes a good compact loop for hill repeats. Here is an image of the Hill Repeat Loop:
… and here is an example of a 5 X L4-LT (L5a) uphill repeat with the downhill as 100% recovery:
These trail loops serve as the basis for my current two-a-week interval sessions where on Tuesdays I do a hill repeat workout and on Fridays I do “track-like” workouts on the meadow loop. The structure of the individual sessions vary and some additional examples can be seen in the training plans posted here. All interval sessions begin with an 8 km (5 mi) warm-up at L1-L2 and end with a 3-5 km (1.8-3 mi) cool-down at L1-L2.
This two-a-week interval protocol has worked out quite well as I can feel the endurance, strength, and power building up and I can see the times coming down. Although this is an expected result, there are other positive aspects to this on-trail interval training that have become apparent, aspects that I did not fully appreciate prior to putting the protocol into place and that are not developed in a traditional track setting. These additional positive aspects center around two very important elements in trail running:
- downhill running skill
- trail foot speed and turnover
Although I have worked hard at developing downhill running skill over the past two years, progress has been fairly glacial, with improvements in the 5-10% range over a season using “standard run” downhill sections for concentrated efforts. These improvements have provided passable speeds but not the sort of improvement that I know I am capable of. Enter on-trail intervals- what a difference!
Regular sessions on the Meadow Loop doing mile and 1/2 mile repeats at speed over single track terrain that includes some small, but real, downhills forces one to develop foot placement skills, stride skills, and associated small foot and ankle muscles that quickly lead to efficient (and fast) downhilling on trails. There is nothing like maintaining a 6-6:30 mile pace on a “semi-rocky” trail downhill to stimulate focus and skill development that is otherwise hard to push toward on a regular trail run. Particularly for a 58 year old!
Similarly, in the hill repeat sessions with, say, a 3 min LT(L5a)-L5b up with 1 min rest followed by a 3 min LT (L5a) downhill effort, one becomes viscerally aware of the needed focus to successfully navigate a downhill at that speed. There is no replacement for necessity to inculcate effective skill and fine movement muscle development.
I have found that the incremental skill and focus development during the interval sessions is much greater than that which I was able to attain in attempting to develop these elements on a regular distance run, independent of whether the run was a “standard run” or a “long run” effort. In the 7 weeks (14 sessions) that I have been including the on-trail interval sessions in my training plan, I have experienced a 25% increase in speed on typical 6-10% smooth downhill grades and a 35% increase in speed on typical 8-20% technical downhill grades in training. The intervals have had a remarkable impact on downhilling speed.
As far as foot speed and turnover, a similar effect is readily apparent in development of speed on flats and gradual up and downs. My rolling terrain mile times have come down by 15% at L2 and 20% at L3 since I started the interval session protocol. Whilst some of this speed is due to the enhanced, running-specific, aerobic and anaerobic cardio development, the level of comfort I have attained from a musculo-skeletal and skill perspective seems to be dominating. I say this because I come into the running season directly from the competitive cross country skiing season where my aerobic and anaerobic capacities have been highly developed by similar skiing intervals. So, although there is some additional running-specific cardio capacity development in the running intervals, the element that is new is running fast on trails and the collateral skill and muscle development. Perhaps I am an exception as it concerns the rate of improvement by including on-trail intervals in my training program, but if my past experience in training protocol is any indicator, then such will likely be the case for others.
Although it is clear that track workouts are an effective way for trail runners to develop speed and enhance aerobic and anaerobic capacities, it is also apparent that similar, on-trail, “track” and hill repeat workouts offer additional skill and small foot and ankle muscle development that is otherwise hard to stimulate in everyday training. I heartily recommend that you give some on-trail intervals a try as it might be what you need to accelerate your progress just as it has for me.
*Apparently the great Lasse Viren felt the same way as this quote from a nice article on Finnish “sisu” by Adam Chase indicates:
“Viren says he didn’t much care for running on the track outside of competition. Most of his training took place on forest trails, he says, where he’d do speed work and push the hills.”
Bliz Eyewear, a Sweden-based company entered the US market about a year and a half ago with their full line of eyewear products, from performance sunglasses to ski goggles to casual wear sunglasses. Prior to entering the US market Bliz developed a large following in Scandinavia for performance sunglasses and goggles specifically for Nordic skiing competition. Bliz is a young brand having been established in 2007 by Future Eyewear Group AB (FEG). FEG also has other brands e.g. Prestige, Granite, Dr. Zipe, and Swing. FEG has been around since 1984 and has operated primarily in Scandinavia. However, the popularity of the Bliz brand has expanded well beyond Scandinavia including all of Europe, Russia, and the US. Many of the 2014 Olympic Nordic skiing medalists wear Bliz product, e.g. Marit Bjorgen, Marcus Helner, and Charlotte Kalla among many others. Bliz has been adding trail running athletes to their roster as well, most notably, Emile Forsberg.
The growth of the brand is the result of providing a high level of technology and design with an attractive price point. Where many other brands offer active eyewear products in excess of $200 a pop, Bliz has ventured forward at a much lower price point in the $100-$130 range for the same or better technology. We all know that eyewear is incredibly cheap to manufacture (like less than $5 for a high level model) and that we are therefore paying principally for design and marketing (not to mention profits!). Bliz has at least staked out a middle ground on the price equation thereby giving the other competing brands a run. Let’s hope this leads to an eventual normalization of pricing. Time will tell.
The Scourge of Fog
The primary challenges in eyewear for high intensity active sports such as Nordic skiing, running, and mountain biking are fogging (moisture precipitation on the surface of the lens) and changeable light conditions. Fogging in particular has been a big issue, for instance, because it will essentially incapacitate a Nordic skier who is traveling at competitive average speeds of 2-3 min/km (3-5 min/mile), not to mention regular sub 1:30 kms on downhills (60 km/hr (40 miles/hr)). It was common up through the mid-2000′s to see competitive Nordic skiers throw whatever sunglasses they were wearing to the side when conditions rendered them “opaque”. Anti-fog coatings, sprays, and potions generally did not work, particularly for the high humidity, active precipitation situations not uncommon in Nordic skiing (or running, or mountain biking for that matter). Fogging was one the more frustrating issues for participants in such events as it lead to non-optimal experiences and, in some cases, danger.
We are fortunate that products have been developed that very effectively deal with fogging. The product developers have made the realization that the only way to robustly deter the formation of fog is to optimize ventilation in and around the interior lens surfaces. Given the very large variation in human face shapes this required that the user be provided with the ability to adjust the sunglasses for optimal ventilation. This has been generally accomplished by utilization of fully adjustable nosepeice elements that allow for positioning the sunglasses well above the surface of one’s face and thereby allowing for substantial airflow across the inside lens surfaces. Bliz has been a pioneer in the development of such nosepieces and adjustable nosepeieces are included on all of the Bliz performance sunglasses. I can attest to the efficacy of this technology. In fact since switching to the Bliz product line, I have not not experienced any significant fogging in Nordic skiing, trail running, or mountain biking. Life has become better!
Although numerous high performance models are available from Bliz, I have been most impressed by the “Tracker” model and now use this sunglass exclusively for all competitive sports that I participate in (Nordic skiing, trail ultramarathons, and cross country mountain biking).
The “Tracker” is a very flexible model in that it can be used in a full frame set-up as above or without a lower frame (“frameless”). In addition one can change the look of the frame by switching the lower “jawbone” frame element to the provided, contrasting color. Shown below is what comes in the box:
Here are a few of the ways the sunglasses can be configured:
I have used the Bliz “Tracker” model for an entire Nordic skiing season (about 3000 km (1800 miles)) and the first part of this year’s running season (about 1600 km (1000 miles)). The conditions have ranged from super cold (-38C (-37F) – we just happened to be in West Yellowstone, Montana for their coldest day of the year) to very warm (35 C (95F)) and moisture ranging from active precipitation (snow and rain) with humidity ranging from 15% RH to 100% RH. Not all permutations of these conditions have been experienced but rather a full spectrum of those typically expected for these sports.
The most remarkable thing has been that in both skiing and running I have yet to have these sunglasses fog. I cannot say this for any other sunglass products that I have used, including models from Smith, Scott, Oakley, Rudy Project, Bolle, and Salomon. As far as I can tell the reason that the Bliz has performed so well with respect to fog is, as mentioned above, the adjustable rubber-coated nosepiece. Proper adjustment of this element allows the sunglass to rest far enough away from the surface of one’s face to provide sufficient air flow to prevent fogging. This position above the face also allows the lens surface to maintain a temperature closer to ambient and thereby reduce the driving force for condensation. Although other sunglasses that I have used have adjustable nosepieces, the sunglasses were all designed in such a way that I was unable to get the eyewear far enough from my face to maintain sufficient ventilation and close-to-ambient lens temperature. Another factor that plays a role here is slippage of the nosepiece where even when properly adjusted, some nosepieces slip into other, undesirable, positions. The Bliz “Tracker” nosepiece stays in position and does not move any significant amount- it would appear that the rubber-like material that Bliz uses on the surface of the nosepiece is very well selected for the purpose. I cannot say this for other product that I have tried, since slippage was always a problem.
I addition, Bliz, (as well as many other manufacturers) have used wire-core Grilamid in the temples for light weight and flexibility. The temple tips are also coated with the same grippy rubber material as is on the nosepiece. This helps with keeping the sunglasses in place and is another factor that makes fogging essentially non-existent, at least in my experience.
Also provided with the sunglasses is a strap that integrates with the temples that wraps around one’s head to allow for super-secure fitting. I tried the strap a few times but found it to be superfluous as I have yet to have any issue with the sunglasses staying put.
Setting fogging aside, the “Tracker” provides very good coverage and I have seldom been in conditions and orientations where I felt that the coverage was compromised. This is partly due to the width of the temples near the hinge which is rather wide but no much so that one might feel that the field of view is being compromised.
The optical quality is on par with any of the competing products, both in substrate materials and in coatings. None of this technology is “state-of-the-art” in any product and all of the physics and engineering was complete in the 1980′s. So do not let any manufacturer fool you in to thinking that they have some “superior” coating or substrate material, at least not as of this writing.
When I first began wearing the “Tracker” I felt that they were “huge” and this was partly due to the fact that I have small face. But with continued use, I became enamored with the size mostly because I had very good coverage and the sunglasses were not right on top of my face. A far as looks- well that is a very individual thing and I will not comment on that here as my “taste” likely differs from most. But I will not be scared off from large-size sunglasses in the future, even with a small face.
Finally, I do like the fact that one can change-up the looks of the sunglasses by interchanging the “jawbones” to produce anything from a very mellow look to something with “attitude”. I think that Bliz would do well to offer a bunch of different “jawbone” pieces for sale separately as we know how much people like to customize their look- much as is the case with iPhone covers.
$130. This is $40-$100 cheaper than what competitors offer as similar products, technology-wise and fit. A good deal and one that should encourage a buyer to take a close look at the “Tracker” as well as Bliz’ other models.
A versatile, flexible, and high performance technical eyewear choice at a price point that is hard to beat.
Salomon have introduced a new hydration belt product for the 2014 running season to compliment an existing belt that was offered in 2013. Last year the S Lab Advanced Skin S Belt was a popular choice for many trail runners and performed well but with a few issues. I reviewed the product initially here and did a final review here after a season of use. The “S” belt issues were primarily centered upon the belt cinches slipping when fully loaded and some construction issues with the cinch tabs.
The new offering is called the “M” belt and it is significantly improved over the “S” belt in numerous areas. I will go through these improvements below based on having over 1000 km (600 miles) of use of the belt on trails here in the Northern Rockies.
The “M” belts departs from the “S” belt in that it has a larger volume and therefore and can carry much more. Presented below is a comparison image of the two belts:
Clearly both segments of the “M” belt are larger but they are also designed better with respect to typical use for running. For instance the “front” segment* (left) of the “M” belt has one large continuous pocket rather than two individual pockets as on the “S” belt. This provides more flexibility to what one may put in this pocket. Similar design refinements are extant throughout the “M” belt.
The linking hardware on the “M” belt is the same as is found on the “S” belt and therefore the segments from both belts can be used with one another allowing for additional customization for those who own both belts. The “M” belt has a different material for the cinching tabs. This material is more substantial than in the “S” belt and has, so far exhibited much less slipping. The slipping was a major issue with the 2013 “S” belt and based on my use so far has been resolved in the “M” belt as I have not experienced any significant slippage after over 1000 km of use including “fully loaded” configurations.
“M” Belt Features
The “M” belt design is a derivative of the “S” belt in all respects including the “3D mesh” material that interfaces with the body. This material is highly formable and very comfortable, even on hot days. Shown here are the “body sides” of the two “M” belt segments.
The primary differences between the “S” belt and the “M” belt are with respect to the design and placement of the pockets. Presented below is an image of the “front” segment of the “M” belt showing the various pockets.
As can be seen above the “M” belt provides two pockets for soft flasks (with retaining cords) that is interconnected as one big pocket. This gives flexibility for what size flask one might want to carry and allows for other, bigger “stuff” to be accommodated in this pocket. Layered on top of this pocket are two individual pockets, one zippered (retained from the “S” belt design) and the other is open. The zippered pocket is useful for securing things such as cameras, keys, etc. that one does not want to fall out under any circumstance (e.g. during a fall). All pockets are constructed of the fine stretch mesh material that expands and allows for significant “stuffing” of all manner of items. Two elastic bands are provided and can be used for securing a jacket or vest, gloves, and even a crushable hat.
The “rear” segment of the “M” belt is entirely redesigned relative to the “S” belt. Presented below is an image of the “rear” segment showing the new design and features.
The most significant change is that both of the rear pockets are now configured as single large pockets rather than two, smaller individual pockets. One of the pockets is zippered and the other is open. The zippered pocket also has a two-way zipper mechanism which is quite ergonomic when trying to get into the pocket on the trail.
Also provided are two elastic bands for additional carrying capacity. I have stashed a light down sleeping bag using these bands to facilitate an overnight excursion- I am certain that there will be other many uses.
Although I have found that the “M” belt can be used for very long (even overnight) excursions, the typical use will be for the 2-5 hour trail run. I will go through the typical set-up that I use for such runs; individual use will obviously vary, so this is just an example demonstrating the utility of the belt.
Presented below is an image of my set-up for a typical (2-5 hour) training run.
In this set-up I have 3 237 ml/8 oz soft flasks (I use about 1 flask per hour) one accommodated by a hydro “glove”, 4 gel pacs, a sliced apple and/or PB&J in a baggie (in front pocket), placebo (salt tabs), and an S Lab Light jacket. In the case of longer runs (4-5 hours) I will take a 500 ml/16 oz soft flask as well. This fits in the large zippered “back” pocket and I move the smaller soft flask to the front. Here is what it looks like all zipped up and ready to go:
A very neat package. The rear zippered pocket can also hold two of the 237ml/8oz soft flasks (or, as mentioned above, a single 500 ml/16 oz soft flask) and the S Lab Light jacket:
The stretch mesh fabric allows this load to be zipped up very neatly.
In addition to what is shown above, there is a large stretch mesh pocket across the “rear” segment that can accommodate the S Lab Light jacket, a long sleeve shirt, a vest, and a UV water purifier. Meanwhile a light raincoat, such as the Fast Wing Hoodie, can fit simultaneously into the zippered pocket. This will allow for a an extended excursion well into the back country, as I can attest to.
Suspension and Fit
The primary drawback to the 2013 “S” belt was that, once loaded to any significant degree, the belt would continually and progressively slip down ones waist and eventually require “tightening”. Depending on the weight of the load and the ruggedness of the trail being traversed this “tightening” could be as often as every couple of minutes. I stopped using the “S” belt for anything but the lightest of loads. The “M” belt is substantially improved with respect to this issue. In over 1000 km of trail running with various weight loads, I have only tightened the belt twice and in both cases I was traversing across rugged sage steppe with no trail and a lot of missteps and off balance moves. On smooth trail I have yet to need to tighten the belt.
How was this accomplished? As mentioned earlier, Salomon have changed the fabric for the cinch tabs to a more textured version which apparently increases the friction grip in the attachment d-ring/hook element. Also, the cinch tabs are now two segments that can be individually adjusted to allow for even more flexibility with respect to fit around the waist. This facilitates even load distribution and will therefore minimize the chance that one cinch loop is more loaded than the other. Finally, the belt, being larger than the “S” belt, fits higher up on the waist and this puts the load more onto the top of the hips rather than “around” the hips as was the case for the “S” belt. This position is inherently more stable. These three improvements have lead to a very stable and comfortable fit. In addition there is very little bounce with the belt, even when fully loaded. This is also much improved over the 2013 “S” belt.
Thee were concerns expressed about the 2013 “S” belt with respect to fit for small waist sizes. Those with small waist lines, (less than about 27″ (68.6 cm)) found that they could not fully tighten the belt because one would run out of cinch space. As a result the belt was always loose for these users. I found this to be true for the “S” belt as I have 27″ waist and had to tighten the belt as far as I could to get a proper fit. The “M” belt design has fixed this as I still have a 27″ waist and there is about an inch more of tightening on either side (see images below). So it looks like the belt can accommodate users down to about a 25″ (63.5 cm) waist and still have a proper fit.
Here are some perspective views of the belt as it appears when worn. As can be seen, it sits higher on the waist than the 2013 “S” belt does. The fit and suspension give a very comfortable and “almost not there” feel. As shown the belt is quite loaded- two 237 ml/8 oz soft flasks (one front, one in rear zippered pocket), 4 gel pacs, a 148 ml/5 oz soft flask for fuel (in front pocket), a long sleeve shirt in outer back pocket, S Lab Light jacket in outer back pocket, placebo (salt tabs) in outer back pocket), a UV water purification pen (in zippered rear pocket) and a Fast Wing Hoodie rain jacket (in zippered rear pocket).
Here is an image of what is in the belt for the perspective images:
… and there is room for more. It is quite remarkable how much “stuff” one can get into this belt and still retain a high level of comfort and very little bounce. Access to the pockets is also good and the belt can be easily spun around whilst clasped to facilitate egress into the rear pockets. Overall the “M” belt is not only a great improvement to the 2013 “S” belt but is much superior on numerous fronts- basically, it is just a better belt than the “S” and competes well with anything currently available.
$80. Given the improvements and the large load volume, the “M” belt is well worth the price.
A versatile, comfortable, flexible trail running pack for anything from 2-5 hours- or even overnights if you are willing to go “minimal”. Highly recommended.
* as has been the case from the outset, there is no front or back to these belts, they are functional in both orientations as well as being able to be worn sideways as well.
I looked forward to the publication of “Diet Cults” by Matt Fitzgerald after reading and enjoying his books “Racing Weight” and “The Racing Weight Cookbook”. I reviewed “Racing Weight” earlier this year and can highly recommend it and the companion cookbook as general, outcomes-based guides to what sorts of diets work for champion endurance athletes and how you might refine your own diet to help with your competitive endurance endeavors. In these books, Fitzgerald does not poo-poo any specific diet yet goes about substantiating the relevance of a healthy agnostic approach to diet for endurance athletes. The books contain sensible diet advice based on observations of what works for champions. Given that “Racing Weight” is now in a second edition, many others are similarly impressed with the contents of this work.
“Diet Cults” is an attempt by Fitzgerald to bring some rationality to the spectrum of religions that make up the current diet universe. “Food is Religion” is one of the many operative concepts that Fitzgerald discusses and analyzes with respect to the impact on the decison-making process of those in this world who have the freedom to decide what sort of diet they are going to consume. In fact the book starts out speaking to the origin of diets as coming from semi-religious and religious communities where such diets helped reinforce (and enforce) adherence to the religious tenets in place at the time. Religion as the origin of diets (and “diets as religion”) really helps one understand today’s current dogmatic, polarized situation. As Fitzgerald points out, “rationality” does not have a large place at this point and looking rather to outcome-based results is a defensible way to approach your own diet.
Fitzgerald does a reasonable job at describing the various popular diets (food religions) today and uses stories and “characters” (e.g. Brian MacKenzie of CrossFit) to help entertain the reader in the process- some with greater success than others. This “Gladwell-esque” style can be very engaging on such semi-non-fiction subjects but Fitzgerald needs to more fully develop the many sides of the “stories” rather than just concentrate on the “character”. He misses out on the powerful combination of presenting both the “focus character” and the “character(s)” behind the studies and science that may or may not support the particular diet (much as Gladwell does in some of his books and essays). There is a near total miss on the later and substantially detracts from what would, with such additions, be a landmark book. It would be a longer book, but a much better book.
His calling-out of Tim Noakes on the subject is well done and demonstrates that “religion” can infect even the best of scientists. This serves as a fair warning to all about the powerful polarization and irrationality that has always infused the subject.
Whilst I personally subscribe to Fitzgerald’s “Healthy Agnostic Eating” concept, he could make a much stronger case with the inclusion of some level of a comprehensive review of what the (currently defective) field of “nutrition science” is finding- in particular that there is very little that can be concluded from a rigorous scientific perspective based on what we know today.
The book is a quick read and quite enjoyable in stretches but lacks quite a bit of depth and has no index. It is more like a very long essay than it is like a book and would serve as a starting point for anyone who would like to make a study of diets, their origins, and their efficacy. Fitzgerald does however have an important message about diet- there is no one way. The extent to which he conveys this to the typical reader will determine the success of this book.
I recommend the book but be aware that it is an “hors d’oeuvre” on the subject. Hopefully the main course will come soon.
I noted in an earlier post that I would put up my running season training plan. As also noted earlier, I have engaged with a coach and have been following the direction of the coach since December. The ski season worked out very well- I notched up in performance and now find myself in contention for top 10 overall and less than 10% back from the winner in the larger regional races. At 58 I consider this to be successful.
The major change was rigorous commitment to a two-a-week interval session protocol in addition to the over-distance (OD), tempo, and skills workouts. I was concerned that I would not be able to support the interval sessions but found that, as long as I truly took easy days, the intervals sessions went well and I looked forward to them.
For the running season, my coach has continued the two-a-week interval session protocol. I was a bit concerned because, not being a “real” runner, I thought that the pounding would get to me. After 3 weeks of this program, I am fine and once again, look forward to the intervals. Hopefully this continues because I can really feel the positive impact of the intervals in fitness, flexibility, and, interestingly, technique. The last point is similar to that experienced when skiing where in order to do the intervals at speed one’s technique needs to be honed. In skiing, the weight shift and “wax setting” need to be timed well in order for the speed and efficiency to materialize, independent of fitness and to extract the most out of the intervals any significant technique issues need to be resolved. This gives one much to think about while doing the intervals and the concentration involved is just the “deep practice” that one needs to engage in to improve. I find a similar situation with the running. All of my intervals are conducted on trails and this allows for the development of enhanced trail technique for uphills, downhills, and flats. For instance my trail descending speed has improved dramatically since starting the interval sessions. I can, at this juncture, highly recommend trail intervals to anyone wishing to improve their fitness and their technique.
Basic Weekly Training Outline
Much as we developed for the skiing season, we put together a weekly outline:
Sunday: Long Run
Wednesday: Long run or Tempo
I like regularity and this schedule is definitely a “rinse and repeat” with some opportunity for changing the structure of the various types of sessions. As you will see the intervals are quite varied, as are the tempo runs. Also added to this plan are near-daily strength sessions and active recovery. The weekly totals end up in the range from 13h to almost 20h, but mainly in the 16-18h range. Distance, although tabulated, is not the point- time, intensity, and vertical ascension are the primary outputs that are analyzed by my coach.
Specific training leading up to a 100 km race
Here are the specific training sessions that we have planned leading up to a mountainous (5,000 m (17,000 feet) of vertical ascension) 100 km race on 21 June. The race will be difficult, as all of the vert comes in the first 50 miles and this is followed by a 13 mile continuous downhill to the finish- basically it is half a Hardrock with a 13 mile downhill to finish you off. The May and June calendars are presented below. Note: I use the Friel protocol for naming some of the sessions as I am an avid user of heart rate during training and find his workouts to “work” for me. Certainly there are other approaches that may work better for some.
There were two weeks of training prior to what is shown (in April)- one was an easy week with intervals and the the other just prior to the May activities, was a volume week with intervals. Prior to these weeks I was “on my back” for 10 days after my wife/coach brought back some evil Beantown virus after visiting family. I have not been sick for over 12 years and this one really put me down- hopefully it will be another 12 years before being hit again.
You will note that I have included roller skiing into this plan. Since my primary sport is cross country skiing, it is very important to maintain the required core and upper body strength to be able to transition smoothly into ski-specific training in the fall without injury. Cross country skiing is essentially a “core”-dominated sport and focus on the core is central to any training plan. Core strength is also very important in running so the two sports compliment one another in this way. The roller skiing sessions are all “double pole” activities; I do this because the action is a “whole-body” exercise requiring not only strength but significant coordination, not to mention skiing technique. As expected, the double pole technique is highly dependent on, and therefore uniquely develops, core strength. It also addresses lats, biceps, triceps, and pecs- all of which are critical to ski speed and race success. Although some of these all-body motions can be simulated in a gym, I much prefer to be outside doing this work… I have never been a gym-type and I moved to the mountains to be outside in clean air, not inside a gym. But these are my preferences, others quite obviously enjoy the gym experience.
Also included here is a lot of active recovery (almost daily). Much of this is a bike ride to the local grocery where I shop daily. It is a 5 km round trip ride on bike paths with a net vert of about 90 m. I do this ride on a 3-speed “cruiser” and cannot help but smile while doing so. I ride daily to the grocery year-round as the bike paths are plowed in winter and I just switch to studded snow tires to make things safe. I find the ride to be very helpful in recovery, particularly in the running season and if I do miss a day, I know it. Highly recommended.
So that’s the plan- I am 4 weeks into it and so far, so good. I am thrilled that the intervals are working out as I think that this will pay dividends across the board in the coming race season.
There has been substantial debate over the past number of years pertaining to the validity of the so-called “10,000 hour rule” (hereafter referred to as “the rule”) as it applies to development of expertise and excellence in performance. As first asserted by Ericsson, the rule provides that the development of an “expert” or “master” level of accomplishment requires a minimum of about 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” and that this improvement follows a linear growth rate. “Deliberate practice” is focused (perhaps structured) training where one consciously addresses weaknesses whilst maintaining (and possibly improving) strengths. The 10,000 hours works out to about 10 years of focused training before one can attain an “expert” or “master” level in the endeavor. The underlying supposition is that “nurture” super-dominates “nature”, i.e. as some would say “talent is over-rated”. The egalitarian basis of “the rule” has resonated with a society that values a hard-work ethos that leads to success, something that is perhaps fundamental to any civil society. But reality is, in this case, something very different.
As applied to sport, many have noted that there are numerous examples of athletes who have invested much less than 10,000 hours of focused training yet exhibit “excellent” performance at the international and Olympic level. Similarly, many have also noted numerous examples of athletes who after investing substantially more than 10,000 hours of focused training have still not reached (or even come near to) excellence in their respective sports. All of this is, of course, contrary to “the rule” and there have been a number of excellent analyses that disprove the efficacy of “the rule” as a controlling, single factor in the development of expertise and excellence in performance. The best of these analyses that I have been exposed to are well represented by those of Ross Tucker here, here, and here. Tucker concisely and thoroughly shows that, in addition to the glaring lack of attention to the statistical variance in the data as first presented by Ericsson (and subsequently by others), a myriad of arguments and data can be brought forth that detail the many other factors that clearly play significant roles in performance excellence. Not the least of these factors is individual gene expression, the subject of the recent book “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein. Epstein’s thesis is that unique combinations of “hardware” (genes) and “software” (training and opportunity) are what lead to performance excellence- not just training time as Ericsson and his acolytes assert.
In this post I am providing yet another aspect of the debate that has generally been overlooked and not well recognized- that of the statistical rarity of excellence and approaches to defining such excellence.
How to define an “expert” or “performance excellence”?
One of the deficient parts of the debate has been in defining exactly what “expert” or “excellence” is. For chess Ericsson uses the “master” level achievement as the definition of “expert” and such an earned title is based on the performance of chess players in tournaments with other “ranked” players. To first order this is a reasonable approach for something like chess. For sport, other systems can be used but in the case of running, particularly track and road events, the finishing time is an almost absolute reckoning of the level of excellence of a particular performance. Analytical comparisons of an athlete’s best time with the world record provides a sound basis for establishing a scale upon which “levels” of achievement can be placed.
One approach to deriving an analytical basis for the determination of excellence (or “expert” (elite) level) in standard distance, timed events is via statistics. The collection of a large number of finishing times for a particular event (e.g. marathon, mile, 800 m, etc.) can be analyzed for distribution type (normal, log-normal, etc.) and then metrics can be applied defining “levels” of accomplishment. In the case of a normally distributed population of marathon times, for instance, one could use standard deviation from the mean as an analytical metric defining expertise/excellence, i.e., for example, “good”= 1-2 standard deviations from the mean (84.2-97.8 percentile), “very good” = 2-3 standard deviations (97.9-99.9 percentile) from the mean, and “expert” (elite) = >3 standard deviations (>99.9 percentile) from the mean. Similar distribution metrics can be utilized for other types of distributions, should such non-normal distributions be extant.
A problem with this approach is deciding exactly what population of finishing times to analyze. Using all available times from a particular event will likely skew the data to longer finishing times as many who participate in a given event are not “athletes”- this is particularly true of middle and long distance events (5 km-ultramarathons). Truncation of the population at a certain cutoff finishing time will clearly help (e.g. using only times less than 4 hours for analysis of men’s marathon finishing times) but such a protocol involves a somewhat arbitrary determination and without conducting a sensitivity analysis the results could still be skewed.
The “percentage back” approach
Another, more robust, approach involves a simple process of rank ordering of the best ever finishing times for a particular event and then calculating the percentage time back from the best ever finishing time. The best ever finishing time provides an absolute reference against which any other time can be compared. A plot of cumulative probability (percentile rank) versus percentage back from the best ever finishing time will yield at least two useful things:
- “levels” of expertise/excellence can be applied to the data (e.g. “expert” (elite) could be defined as a best result that is less than 5% back from the best ever finishing time, “very good” (sub-elite) could be defined by times less than 10% back, etc.)
- the analytic functionality of the “excellence curve” of that particular event can be determined and allow for scaling of a given effort
Such “percentage back” analysis approaches are utilized regularly in cross country skiing to calculate World Cup points and thereby rank all competitors. One reason it is used is because finishing times in cross country skiing is highly variable for the same distance as a result of snow and weather conditions playing a dominating role in skiing speed (skiing speed for a given race distance (say, 30 km) shows about a 30-40% variability across events depending on course conditions and weather). So for an individual event on a given day under whatever conditions are prevailing, the percentage back from the winning time is the most relevant metric for evaluation of a performance. Corrections are made for the “quality” of the field at each event to ensure that races where a strong field is present are more heavily weighted than those with a much lower level of competitiveness.
In the case of running, finishing times are much less affected by weather and prevailing surface conditions, particularly those finishing times that are among the fastest ever recorded. So the “percentage back” approach can be used to make comparisons between events and therefore one can include all finishing times for an event, independent of when and where it took place. Use of data sets that include something in excess of about the 500 fastest finishing times ever will accurately establish the “expert” or “elite” tail of the distribution of all recorded times- it is this tail of the distribution that is the important part for the purposes in this post.
I will suggest here that “excellence” (elites) could be reasonably defined by those finishing times that are less than 5% back from the fastest ever time. Similarly, “very good” (sub-elite) could be finishing times less than 10% back, etc. This is just a proposal, not a proclamation; other defendable choices are likely, but the 5%,10% are commonly used in evaluations of talent in cross country skiing.
The “excellence curve” – Competition in running is an “exponential world”
As an example, presented below is a plot of percentile rank (cumulative probability) of the 499 fastest men’s marathon times ever recorded against percentage back from the fastest ever finishing time (2:03:02, G. Mutai, 4/18/11 (Boston)). Note that this type of analytic normalization of rank order is utilized in calculation of percentile rank for the SAT test for each cohort taking the test. A truncated population is shown here for the fastest men’s marathon finishing times (i.e. the equivalent of test scores) because we are interested in the “excellence” end of the population, so the expected “S” curve is not extant.
Clearly the functionality is non-linear, in fact the functionality is exponential. This empirical curve is the current “excellence curve” for the men’s marathon in that it defines the functionality and magnitude of time improvement required to progress in the marathon event.
Presented below is the same data as in the first graphic with a fitted exponential function. The equation for the curve is shown on the graph showing an e-base exponent of about 1.26.
Clearly K. Ito’s time of 2:07:57 (Beijing, 1/19/86) is exponentially slower than G. Mutai’s 2:03:02 (Boston, 4/18/11). In other words Mutai is exponentially faster than Ito by a magnitude defined by the percentage back, in this case 3.996% back and Ito would have to improve exponentially to claw his way down the marathon “excellence curve”. There is no linearity in performance excellence for the marathon*. One will find similar exponential results for other distances. This analysis also clearly shows exactly how rare and ethereal the top performers are.
Using the suggested protocol for defining “excellence” (elite) and “very good” (sub-elite) mentioned above, “elite” marathoners would be those with results less than 2:09:09 (less than 5% back from the fastest ever time) and “sub-elite” marathoners would be those with results less than 2:15:18 but greater than 2:09:09 (less than 10% back but greater than 5% back from the fastest time ever).
The “10,000 hour rule” in an exponential world
A fundamental premise underlying the work of Ericsson (and others) who subscribe to the “10,000 hour rule”, is that increasing total volume of deliberate practice singularly leads to greater accomplishment until one reaches the “master” or “expert” (elite) level at total accumulated training times greater than about 10,000 hours. This is the reason that numerous books have been written describing various ways to go about becoming “expert” (elite) using deliberate practice. All of these books center around a basic tenet: More deliberate practice (and only more) is better, necessary, and sufficient to achieve excellence. Examples of books that espouse the “10,000 hour rule” tenet are “The Talent Code - Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How” , “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” , and Outliers: The Story of Success, where the authors gleefully proclaim that anyone can be “expert” or attain “performance excellence” just by grinding away at deliberate practice for long enough.
Applying this principle to the marathon, it follows that if one were to accumulate the 10,000 hours in total volume of deliberate practice then one would be “expert” or have results that are considered “performance excellence” (elite). We all know that this is not true as there are thousands of dedicated, smart-training, 10,000 hour+ marathon runners who will never see the likes of a 2:07 finishing time. Just ask your local 2:15, 10,000 hour+ marathoner exactly what they think about ever finishing a race in 2:07 (note: this result would still only get one to within about 4% of the best time). Additionally, it is not possible to non-linearly increase training time for any meaningful period as there are only so many hours in the day and only so much training stress that one’s body can take without breaking down physiologically. Any meaningful non-linear increase in training time will rapidly run out of hours in the day and musculoskeletal tolerance**. What this and the data above show is that, for the men’s marathon (and I note that this holds for other distances as well), linear increases in deliberate practice (training) will make it impossible to improve along the exponential “excellence curve”. One must introduce some individual non-linearity into the improvement process in order to ever be able to compete at the highest levels. I will suggest that one origin of such non-linear improvement comes from what is colloquially called “talent”, i.e. an innate, likely genetic, predisposition to non-linear improvement with deliberate practice in a chosen sport. We have likely all experienced a training partner or fellow competitor who, with a very similar training program and volume, accelerates in performance excellence and leaves “the rest” behind in another category entirely. I’ve seen this not only in sport (tennis, road cycling, mountain biking, and cross country skiing) but also in academics (physics, chemistry, mathematics). To use the sub-title of one of the books noted above, what really separates World-class performers from everybody else is not deliberate practice alone but rather the combination of deliberate practice and innate abilities as well as other factors such as environment, access and, importantly, motivation (the subject of a future post). All of these elements combine to produce the exponential improvement that leads to population of the high performance tail of the finishing time distribution.
The “10,000 hour rule” is a linear concept which has no singular place in the exponential world of athletic performance in endurance sport; the data are clear.
* A similar analysis including many more marathon finishing times (say, 100,000) may eventually show a linear dependence at some point far out on the finishing time/percent back scale, however this part of the excellence curve is not defining “excellence”. The “excellence” part of the curve is exponential as shown here.
**Daniel Coyle, the author of the book “The Talent Code”, argues that under certain situations (he uses the example of a music camp in upstate New York) one can experience non-linear increases in training effectiveness through something that he calls “deep practice”. However, Coyle also notes that this happens only over a limited period of time (7 weeks in the example of the music camp).