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Any change of pace is good for your running

Ken McAlpine explains how you can turn training drudgery into fresh and lively runs.

The train is leaving in ten minutes, and Tom Warren is a mile from the station. These circumstances would present a little problem if Warren were not on foot and running. Warren's dilemma is slightly more complicated than a man chasing a train.

Warren, you see, has been chasing this train for the past 4 hours. A 35-mile run up the Southern California coast from Pacific Beach to Oceanside where he hopes to hop on the train for a ride home. He has left the narrowest of windows, precisely timing his run from his home so he will have to push to make his connection. More of a stimulus, he explains. The window has proved narrower and more stimulating than Warren expected.

Forty-five years old and washboard hard, Tom Warren is anything but typical. Winner of the 1979 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, he is a sweet boy with limitless stamina and imagination. The 35-mile train chase workout is a favourite. "For some reason," says Warren, "the run makes the train ride home enjoyable."

Warren's excesses are not critical, nor does it matter to anyone, but Warren, whether he makes the train (he does). What does matter is the underlying premise behind his antics? Keep running interesting, keep it challenging, make it fresh and have fun.

Running author and 1972 Olympian Jeff Galloway tells you what you may already know. "A lot of people are into this tiresome routine of going out of the door and squeezing the same run on the same course into their schedule,'' says Galloway, who has heard hundreds of similar routines.

Setting off on the run does not have to be a personal Armageddon. Let us face it, running can be a tedious business. Unfortunately, many of us only aggravate the problem. The more variety and interest you add to your training program, the more improvement you can expect to gain from it.

The best runners know this and offer insights that can help you turn training drudgery into fresh and lively runs.

Hang loose

If you are looking for a bit more spice, start by being more flexible within your training schedule. If you have two hard runs and two easy runs planned for the week, stick to that plan, but play with it. You do not have to do the hard run on Wednesday just because the schedule calls for one, especially if you had a tough day at the office.

"The reality is that you are going to have days when you feel good and days when you feel bad, and you are not always going to be able to plan for that," says Pete Pfitzinger, who has ridden this hang loose work ethic to two Olympic Marathons. "Sure, you can force yourself through a hard run, but it will not be a good workout, and it will not be a good experience.''

Olympic Marathon gold medallist Frank Shorter also lays out a general schedule and then enjoys winging it "Until I wake up in the morning, I am not sure exactly what I am going to run," says Shorter, who credits this casual planning with keeping him fresh for 26 years of running. "I feel it is always a good idea to maintain a certain amount of mystery about your workouts. You have to mentally structure your workouts so that they do not become burdensome or boring.''

Take it easy

It is also important to realise that even the most serious training programs have plenty of room for variety and fun. Shorter, self-coached for years, believes that any runner, elite or jogger, needs no more than three hard workouts a week to achieve top condition. "That is the most I have ever been able to do, and that gets me as fit as I can get," he says. "All of your other running has a different kind of cardiovascular purpose. How it is accomplished is not that important."

Shorter is not alone in this belief. Ever since former University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman introduced the hard-easy concept in the early 1950s runners, the world over has been reaping its benefits. Unfortunately, many recreational runners still feel that easy days are wasted, a psychological block most elite runners dispensed with years ago. "The average runner has a tendency to go hard every day, but if you run hard all the time you will go flat," Bowerman says. "Find workouts that you like, introduce a little variety, and smell the flowers. Train hard on certain days, but when you are supposed to run easy, run easy. Not only will the easy days be more pleasurable, but they will also be more beneficial to your training. It is better to be a little undertrained than overtrained."

Shift gears

Another way to liven up your running is by varying the pace during some of your workouts. Top veteran Barry Brown has been competing for 32 years, long enough to run his way through four Olympic Trials, an American veterans marathon record (2:15:15), and more than his share of days when, as he puts it, "I am just putting one foot in front of the other." Brown shakes off lethargy by tossing 20-second accelerations into his ran. He surges and then settles back into a steadier pace for several minutes before accelerating again. Not only will five or six of these bursts snap you back to life, Brown says, they can also "trick" you into a better workout.

"By the time you get back into a comfortable pace, it is much faster than you were going, and you are farther along in your run than you realised," says Brown, who often varies the length of his pickups (20 seconds, 80 seconds and 40 seconds) throughout his run.

Brown also suggests that switching pace and changing gait in training runs can come in handy during races. "I have learned to react to changes in pace very quickly'' says Brown, who on more than one occasion has shifted into high gear and stayed in the thick of the race.

Playing with pace can provide endless variety, and these fartlek alternatives can lead to quick improvement. Vince O'Boyle, the head track and cross-country coach of the University of California at Irvine, has his runners do a wide variety of fartlek sessions, from one-minute bursts with 30-second recoveries to eight minutes of sustained running interspersed with four minutes of recovery. While the variations are limitless, the rest periods are never long enough for a full recovery.

For those with a cramped schedule, fartlek offers high quality, time-efficient workout "You warm-up, throw in some fartlek work, and in 35 minutes you have got a better workout than just going out and running for the same amount of time, "says O'Boyle, who recommends such pace work once or twice a week.

Go new distances

The problem with the daily 5-mile slog is that it can dig you into a hole. Fight off the feeling that you have to run a certain distance each day or something catastrophic will happen. If you kick off your conversations with "I got my five miles in today," it may be time to do yourself (and your friends) a favour. Lop off a couple of miles from your five milers but run it faster.

"Shorten up the normal distance and increase the speed," advises Pfitzinger, who has put this short but sweet premise to work on plenty of occasions. "When you run faster, you feel good, and that will get you revitalised."

Or you can go for a long run and forget about the distance entirely. Top road racer Keith Brantly occasionally saunters off on two-hour runs and does not give a hoot about distance. "Just run," Brantly says. "If you feel you have to, estimate how far you have run and go with that."

Galloway is also a firm believer in the benefits of the long, slow run. Long runs, he says, offer several benefits, from fat-burning to psychological head cleaning. Running farther can also breathe fresh air into a suffocating program. "You get this great sense of accomplishment on long runs of pushing back the barriers," says Galloway, who recommends scheduling long, slow runs once every couple of weeks.

Long runs can open up a wide range of alternatives. Bob Larsen, who now heads UCLA's track and cross-country programs, got his start in coaching at a high school near San Diego. On distance days, Larsen would gather his runners on a coastal road, send them north, wait a couple of hours, then hop in the car and pluck them up one by one. Chased by the spectre of Larsen, the faster runners would record distances they never thought possible.

"They wanted to get as far away from me as they could," laughs Larsen. The kids loved these one-way runs because, for some reason, they seemed to be more motivated to go in one direction without having to loop back over the same roads.

"If you intersperse these longer types of runs once every week or two," Larsen says, "when you come back to your regular run it seems easy."

Kick-off your shoes

One of the apparent beauties of running is it can be done virtually anywhere, a fact that escapes many of us who run exclusively on the road. Bruce Bickford, an Olympic 10,000m finalist, has had some of his best races after training primarily on grass. Rather than go to the track and reel off a set of 400s, Bickford will run 70-second "efforts" on a golf course. Depending on the type of day he is having, this may or may not equate to 400m, but that is part of the allure. "If I am having a bad day, I do not know how far I am running, so I do not worry about it," Bickford says. The point is to go out and run."

Running on the grass is not just more comfortable for the mind; it also offers a different physical challenge. "Grass is softer, so it makes you work a little bit harder," Bickford says. "I have friends who hate running on the grass just for that reason."

One of the reasons Bickford does a lot of his training on golf courses is because his home in suburban Boston is near six of them, but just about any park or playing field will do. Even if you choose to run mainly on the roads, UCLA's Larsen suggests finishing an occasional run with a barefoot jog on a soft, smooth grass surface. Running barefoot, Larsen says, is an excellent way to cool down, and it stimulates the nerves in the bottom of your feet and increases circulation.

Soft sand is even better than grass for barefoot running. Bear in mind that running barefoot on grass or sand drops your heel lower than usual, putting a bit more strain on the Achilles tendons, like any new form of running start slowly and allow your body time to adapt.

Hit the trails

Trail running offers yet another off-road alternative. "No traffic, no frustration," says 2:32 marathoner Maureen Roben, who runs at least twice a week on the trails near her home in Denver. "One reason I have been relatively free of injuries," she says, "is because of all the running I do on soft surfaces. Aside from that, I enjoy running more than if I were pounding the roads every day."

Australian marathon great Rob de Castella is another strong advocate of trail running. He does the bulk of his training on the paths through the Stromlo Forest, a short jog from his home in Canberra.

"Running in the forest is very relaxing," Rob says. "It is so beautiful, I do not have to deal with noise and traffic, and I can run with friends. I want to enjoy my runs, not fight with cars."

Larsen sometimes takes off on "exploring runs" with his 11-year-old son through the canyons behind their home in West Los Angeles. Trails disappear, and rocks force them to stop and climb, none of which matters. "The whole idea," Larsen says, "is to have fun, look around and get a bit of exercise."

Exploring does not even have to be done in the wilds. On an occasional early Sunday morning, Larsen will run smack dab down some of the busiest streets in Los Angeles. "If I run early enough, I can go right down a major boulevard with virtually no traffic."

Expand your horizons

When the snow piles up around triathlete Scott Molina's home in Boulder, Colorado, he might strap on snowshoes. Winner of the 1988 Hawaii Ironman, Molina does not see this as peculiar at all. "Running on snowshoes opens up a bunch of options for me," Molina says. "With snowshoes, I can run mountain trails, through forests, or on the roads. It is also a great workout because it feels like I am running in combat boots."

Innovation does not have to include running at all. Twice a week during certain times of the year, four times Olympian Francie Larrieu Smith plays her way through a circuit of intense callisthenics (hopping, skipping, jumping, push-ups, chin-ups) that can reduce her to rubble.

"I feel like I have been in the weight room when I finish," says Larrieu Smith, who is approached by other runners wondering if all that fun can be good for you. "It is hard work, but I feel like I am playing when I do the circuit Road and track star John Gregorek, a firm believer in variety, mixes the two by running easy to a nearby field, bouncing through callisthenics, and then running home. Plenty of room for fun and improvisation. "Think of all your old PE callisthenics, and then throw out the ones that are crazy," Gregorek advises. "Do the rest of them, and if you do them right, it can be very tough. You do not have to run to get every bit as much of a workout."

Beat it to...

Often considered, but often ignored, is the track. For many recreational runners, the track can be very threatening, which is a shame considering the fun and benefits that can be had there. According to Frank Shorter, part of the reluctance springs from the mistaken belief that intervals have to be pounded out in large bunches.

Shorter points out that many world-class distance runners, including Rob de Castella, do no more than three miles of speed work in one session, and recreational runners can reap benefits from even less.

"You should not be afraid to go and run three half miles on the track with a short recovery. That is not too much to scare anyone away," Shorter says. "Do them consistently, but keep the volume down and the recoveries short, and that should be enough to increase your speed."

Nor do you need to be a slave to the clock. Pick a series of distances and vary the pace within each repetition. Say you choose to do four 400s. On the fast one, run the first 300 easy and accelerate the last 100. Then run the first 200 easy and accelerate the last 200. Continue bumping up the accelerations until you are accelerating through the entire 400. The beauty here is that you ignore the clock and concentrate instead on varying your effort

"It removes the onus of the watch, but it also gives you quality speed work," says Barry Brown, who once spent three months banging out similar accelerations on a grass field, then returned to the track and took 16 seconds off his three-mile best.

Battle the blues

Inevitably, there will be days when no amount of spice will help if you are determined to stick it out. Brown recommends backing off your average pace and concentrating on form. "When you are tired, you get sloppy, and that just exacerbates the problem," Brown says. "You are fighting yourself."

There is, of course, no small irony in all this. Most of us run for fun. But running is not always fun and games. It takes plenty of effort and often challenges us, not always a pleasant prospect. Ever since we were old enough to have to undertake household chores, we learned a basic tenet of human nature: we do not want to do what we do not enjoy and, the fact is, sometimes we do not enjoy running.

In the wavering battle to get out of the door, variety can tip the scales in our favour. Tom Warren understands this. Warren does not chase trains to satisfy some deep-seated commuting urge. Nor does the need to keep an appointment take the sting out of his 35-mile run. Train and chase are Warren's quirky ploy. Choose your Windmill.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • McALPINE, K. (2004) Any change of pace is good for your running. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 9 / February), p. 10-12

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  • McALPINE, K. (2004) Any change of pace is good for your running [WWW] Available from: [Accessed