Saturday, December 13, 2014

Goal Marathon Pace Miles Are Basically Like Crack.

It was just like this. Not really.
On the off chance that you haven't committed my whole fake-marathon-kinda-sorta-training-plan-wtf to memory (WHAT??), my plan was to do nothing but base train for six weeks (which ended up being seven), & then start adding in chunks of ~8:00 pace miles once a week, the idea being that I would start working on getting that pace back into muscle memory while still spending 90% of my mileage on slow, easy, low heart rate runs. (I also thought it might be interesting to see what effect working on my aerobic system and not much else might have on running at that pace/effort level.)

Tuesday 11/11 was my first GMP run. Having no idea what to expect after averaging ~10:30/mile for nearly two months straight, I figured I'd play it by ear, not let myself get too serious about it, & just see what happened. I wasn't sure what 8:00/mile would feel like & kind of had this terrible fear that 1) I would no longer be capable of running that pace for multiple miles at all, or 2) my legs would have totally forgotten, like, how to move that fast & I would just trip all over myself & come crashing down onto the pavement if I tried. But hey, if eight minute miles had me sucking wind after two blocks, I could always downgrade to "marathon effort" & be all, "Meh, I listened to my body which told me to do an easier, less sucky thing, blah blah blah."

(BTW, I am hella suspicious of people who use the phrase "I listened to my body" too often because the body does always seem to be saying things like "Go slower!" or "Unplanned rest day plzthnx!" or "Spontaneous cutback week ftw!" I mean whose body DOESN'T want to go slower or take more rest days or cutback week after cutback week? [Spoiler: If you take several cutback weeks in a row, they are no longer cutback weeks. You're just running less.] Obviously I'm not advocating doing stupid things like ignoring actual pain or never backing off if something feels really wrong or making yourself sick with exhaustion, but the fact is that training for something with any kind of seriousness is hard work, and sometimes it sucks, and sometimes you're just going to be tired & uncomfortable & should probably just suck it up anyway. If I "listened to my body" too closely I would do nothing but lie on the couch & drink wine & eat bon bons all day & stay up until 2am binge watching Dr. Who. True story.)

In the end, I decided to look up at what heart rates I've done marathon pace workouts in the past & try going by that. (For the record, generally anywhere between 175 & 190. I wore a monitor for my first marathon in 2011 & haven't since, & apparently my heart rate in that race averaged about 182. On the other hand, that number is of questionable utility considering that 1) I was having an asthma attack the whole time, & 2) I ran the race basically at long run effort, not marathon race effort, as a result.) I thought I would not aim to keel over and die blow the doors off right out of the gate & thusly decided to just try to keep my heart rate under 180ish, even if that meant running slower than 8:00/mile.

All through my warm-up miles, I kept repeating words of wisdom from Coach Matt Russ re: base training:

    "You have to let your anaerobic system atrophy during base training. You will lose some of your anaerobic endurance and the ability to sustain speed near lactate threshold. LET IT GO, LET IT GO."

I do not have children so I can only assume that song was about aerobic base training.

Though part of me definitely was fantasizing about cranking it up to marathon pace & magically finding that through the mystical voodoo of base training 8:00 miles were suddenly easier than they'd ever been, I knew that was extraordinarily unlikely. After six more months of base training? Maybe. In the mean time, though, I had less than two months under my belt, and as Coach Matt repeated once again in my head, likely a heavily atrophied anaerobic system. (Read: My body has been getting more efficient at using oxygen to run slowly, but anything remotely akin to going fast is going to feel much harder because I'm no longer processing lactate as quickly.)

Oh, friends. If you only could have been there to watch me laughing my ass off as I chugged away at that first mile. (Except it would have been kind of hard to tell I was laughing what with all the sucking of wind.) Yes, it was uphill a bit, so I knew things would get easier, but I will not say I didn't cackle to myself a bit when that first mile--which felt like maybe 10K race effort--ticked off in 8:30.

    "You have to let your anaerobic system atrophy during base training. You have to let your anaerobic system atrophy during base training. You have to let your anaerobic system atrophy during base training."

The second mile (gently rolling & very slightly net downhill) at the same level of effort was a bit faster at exactly 8:00. I ran an easy recovery mile after that, then did another two miles in that 170-180 heart rate zone, which ticked off at 8:04 (mile two in reverse, so gently rolling but very slightly net uphill) and 7:36 (mile one in reverse, so gently but relentlessly downhill) respectively.

    "You have to let your anaerobic system atrophy during base training. You have to let your anaerobic system atrophy during base training. You have to let your anaerobic system atrophy during base training."

I know this. It's just a fact. A fact I know in my brain but that I haven't experienced directly in a very long time, thanks to years of ignoring real base training in favor of trying to peak for one more race (and one more, and one more, and one more).

Yes, those four miles at goal marathon pace felt more like 10K pace. You can tell from the heart rate data, though, that I've made some aerobic gains, and here is why.

When I've taken big chunks of time completely off in the past and then tried running at ~8:00/mile, it definitely did feel hard--at least as hard as these miles, and maybe a little harder. BUT, my heart rate was also up around 200 (ie, the heart rate I hit racing a 10K when I'm in shape). That's not what happened here. With this run, I ran four miles at almost exactly my marathon goal pace (8:03 average), but my heart rate for those four miles averaged 175 bpm. (Read: The absolute lowest end of what I have *ever* considered marathon heart rate.)

When I'm actually out of shape--aerobically and anaerobically--my heart has to work very hard (~200bpm) to get enough oxygen to my body to sustain an 8:00 pace.

When I've been in pretty good shape in the past, aerobically and anaerobically, my heart hasn't had to work as hard (~180-185bpm) to get enough oxygen to my body to sustain that pace, and I can also sustain it comfortably for a long time because my body has become efficient at clearing out lactate.

Right now, my body is definitely not clearing lactate very quickly, as evidenced by the fact that marathon pace felt like 10K pace. On the other hand, my heart really wasn't having to work all that hard (175bpm) to provide enough oxygen to sustain 8:00 miles, and that's kind of awesome.

To sum up:

  • Being in good aerobic shape means you can cover ground faster at lower heartrates (because more economical transport & use of fat & oxygen).
  • Being in good shape anaerobically means you can sustain higher heartrates for longer (because high lactate threshold).

I am now up to five goal marathon pace miles in a row. Although it always feels a little bit tough to kick it up to that higher effort level after running easy warm-up miles 2-3 minutes slower, once I settle into it, I remember why I enjoy running right in that barely-comfortably-fast zone and how it is basically like crack. It's so much easier to hold good form, and everything just feels right and comfortable and "on." Yes, I've detoxed a little in these last few months of 10:00+ minute miles, but after a few (relatively) fast miles, my brain definitely starts throwing an ugly little tantrum at the thought of slowing back down again.


No, I can't run 26 miles at that pace right now (13, maybe), but after two months of restraining myself and exercising patiences and discipline, it's felt so great to open up again and really run instead of shuffle. I'm also starting to develop some confidence that I might be able to run at that pace/effort level at Foster City in January, which is fun.


  1. The timing of this post couldn't be better, as I'm about to embark on Kaiser training this week and am planning on running 2 x 2 HMGP miles on Tuesday(!). I've already decided to use a similar strategy -- looking at a combination of HR and effort, rather than pace, to decide how fast to run those miles. Anyway, I hope to find my return to speedwork as happy/"crack-like" as yours has been (haha). Also: HOLY HR! 200bpm is like my 5K last mile sprint max, and 175 is my average 5K HR. It's just so interesting how HR is so individualized. (is that even a word?)

  2. I think this is the strongest evidence yet that your new training method is working. Kind of makes it all worth it! And I know exactly what you mean about that slightly-fast-but-not-painful speed. It's so much easier, in a way, than slowing down. When I run with my husband, who's slower than I am, I feel so awkward and uncomfortable!

  3. My body often tells me to have a beer after a long run. Are you saying I shouldn't listen? Sad face...

  4. It's so refreshing to read someone who has a highish heart rate when they train. So many people I know fit the 220 minus age model whereas I never have. I can still get my HR up over 190 at the ripe old age of 51.

  5. I like the statement about base training and letting go. I'm there right now I think from rebuilding to NYCM after injury and I'm so much slower. Ugh! I love reading this right now and that maybe I should go easier on myself. Plus - awesome Frozen reference that I can relate to!