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Learning About Running

Last year during COVID I picked running back up. When I was in high school I ran cross country and track. I also played soccer from around five years old through high school, which naturally involved a lot of running. Starting in college I experimented with lifting weights, but still kept some level of a running regime until my second semester when I joined the powerlifting team with a friend of mine. For the next three years, I did not run as cardio was preached as a cardinal sin on the team. I slowly (very slowly) started running again in my fifth and final year of college but swore that I would not run more than three miles at a time. Since I never wanted to run again in the first place, that habit died off pretty soon until 2020.

In January of 2020, my girlfriend and I watched the Houston Marathon runners pass by her apartment and she mentioned that she would like to run another marathon. Over the next couple of months, I experimented with running again in hopes of potentially joining her for the 2021 marathon (that was eventually canceled). When I started again in 2020, I could barely grunt out a mile before needing to stop. Fast forward twelve months with four of those being on a strict training plan and she and I completed a self-organized marathon since every event around us was canceled due to COVID.

My first marathon was mostly me trying to make it through the miles without stopping. Time and splits were in my head, but there was not much I could control since I had previously never run more than 10K (6.2 miles) at once (I ran a 10K with a friend when I lived in Berlin during high school). Now that I have another marathon coming up, I decided to start trying to learn more about training theory and “how to run”.

My learnings so far on training theory is that two different components make up a successful and fast long-distance run: speed and endurance. Running a fast mile is focused on speed. Running a marathon is focused on endurance. Running a fast marathon is the combination of both. Each type of training is incorporating a different form of our bodies’ energy systems which are anaerobic (speed) and aerobic (endurance).

Anaerobic levels of exertion cannot be sustained by anyone for a long time (more than a few minutes), but by putting ourselves into an anaerobic state we can increase the threshold of exertion required to enter an anaerobic state. Effective anaerobic training means that our bodies become more efficient so we can maintain higher speeds before our bodies need to produce our energy anaerobically. Years of effective training, not a single season, is what allows professional runners to maintain such ludicrous speeds for high mileage.

Aerobic levels of exertion can be sustained for much longer periods than anaerobic levels. Running aerobically looks much slower than an anaerobic pace and can be carried over many more miles. Nonetheless, there is a limit to the number of miles a person can run aerobically before fatigue starts setting in. (I am disregarding ultrarunning here because I know that there are ways to force the body into doing more work than it wants to.) Training our aerobic systems means that we will be able to run for a longer amount of time at a pace slower than anaerobic speeds. While there does not seem to be a definitive answer, most trainers suggest running around 80% of miles aerobically and only around 20% anaerobically. The idea is to allow our bodies adequate recovery time while still making progress training one of our systems.

Putting anaerobic (speed) and aerobic (endurance) training together means running quickly over a long distance. After having completed a marathon myself, I have much more respect for professional marathon runners. The distance itself is difficult and most elite runners maintain speeds that average humans can not even run for a mile.

It seems like training plans for beginners, like the one I am on, are focused on simply getting endurance up while trying to keep speeds where they naturally are or even decreasing a person’s “normal” pace to add volume. More advanced runners keep the same volume but add in speed work. Of course, over the course of many years with intentional speed training, I am sure that even on beginner plans, any runner can improve. Last year I remember wondering why more advanced marathon training plans included speed work, but now I know that speed work, even over short distances, is the most effective way to increase speed overall.

Learning how to run is becoming the latest topic that I want to tackle. Running is simple but running with efficiency can be a little more complicated. My knees used to start hurting around 10 miles or more during a run and my quads always felt knotted. Since working on improving my running form my joints no longer hurt, I use my hamstrings instead of my quads (the correct muscles), and my lower back has loosened up. There are certainly more areas that I can improve upon, but the main ones that have helped me so far were keeping my pelvis level instead of tilted and increasing my cadence.

Moving forward in my running career, I would like to continue keeping higher mileage weeks, but not peak marathon fitness mileage, through the off-season to make sure that I maintain what aerobic fitness I gain. In addition, I want to try more speed work. Since I have already increased volume during the months of marathon training, I want to keep the volume steady while focusing on speed. Becoming a better amateur runner should be something worked on over years, not within a single season, which is why I want to take my improvement into “off-season.” Instead of completely separating speed and endurance work, I also want to use them together just at slower increments over a longer period. Running is just another topic to learn something new about.

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