Wednesday, June 6, 2012

It's Not Working Anymore: Confessions of an Insecure Runner

Only a few years ago my 100-mile training routine seemed to work. It really wasn't that complicated:
  • Run 100-110 miles a week, including lots of doubles
  • Train through races before my goal event
  • Do some hard mile repeats on the track every week
  • Do a hard tempo run two days after the track intervals
  • Resist rest
  • Repeat
Since moving to Colorado, I've cut back on my mileage and now max out at about 90-95 a week. This cutback is due in part to the fact that running at elevation is so much harder than running at sea level. I've found out the hard way that doing tons of volume here places me at great risk of injury and exhaustion.

But, alas, I'm finding that even my "new" routine doesn't seem to work. I'm not getting the results I should, which leads me to the conclusion that I overtrain and am experiencing diminishing returns. I'm even open to the fact that back in the day, maybe I wasn't getting the results I should have and was operating on diminishing returns despite one PR after another. Let me explain.

Running 55 miles a week from 2004 to the spring of 2007, I consistently clocked marathons of 3:05-3:08 and rarely got injured. I don't ever remember running being a huge commitment of time, and I usually took one or two days off a week. But then in the spring of 2007, I got into 100-milers and, on the advice of a few who I trusted, jacked up my mileage to triple digits (breaking many rules but somehow averting disaster) to build a body strong enough to go insane distances. But I was still doing marathons and found myself perplexed by the fact that my marathon PR dropped to only 2:58. Yes, it's true, I did win a few ultras in that time span. But does it make sense that a near-doubling of my mileage would result in only a 7-minute reduction in my marathon time? One would think that, by doubling my output and doing good intensity, my marathon time would drop far more than 7 minutes.

I used to get ribbed for having only a 2:58 marathon PR when my half-marathon PR is 1:22 (set in the midst of a 100-mile week, I would add) and my 5K PR is 17:39. A 1:22 half PR and 17:39 5K PR should translate to a marathon of about 2:53. Still, a few guys I knew back in Cleveland were convinced I could go sub-2:50. Obviously, I've never come close to that (but hopefully will in January when I run in the Rock 'n Roll Phoenix Marathon).

So here I am today, an almost 39-year-old runner who hasn't set a PR in a few years and is now questioning everything I'm doing. Granted, it's not like I've done PR-friendly races lately. No, I've signed up for some monsters like the Jemez 50-mile, the Leadville Marathon and, of course, the Leadville 100. But, still, the PRs seem to be in the rear-view mirror. Or, maybe I've just been doing a bad job of signing up for PR-friendly races (geez, are there any PR friendly races in Colorado?). What I now see when I look in the mirror every morning is a guy who used to think he had it figured out, but who is now clueless.

But that's not all I see. I see guys out there breaking 20 hours at the Leadville 100 on 60 miles a week. I'm doing 25-30 percent more than that and last year I finished in 22:35, still a very solid time but, like many of my results over the past few years, a time that was out of whack with how I trained.

Confession: Saturday's race up in Golden Gate State Park has forced me to think a lot about how I train (volume-based approach). But even before Saturday I was kind of in the wilderness. Only now am I admitting my cluelessness. Right now I desperately want someone to help me figure this out. Last Sunday I thought about driving down to Manitou Springs to see if Matt Carpenter, if he had a moment at his busy custard shop, would help give me that Yoda insight I want so badly. Of course, I didn't do that (thank God--I'd have made a fool of myself) and, even if I did, how (or why?) would a guy like Carpenter, who I consider one of the giants in this sport, help a dude like me, who has 1/100 of his ability in the mountains?

So instead I just stewed and was a cranky bastard.

I know what you may be thinking: Wyatt, why are you taking running so seriously? You should do it for enjoyment. I take running seriously because it's who I am. I'm not out to finish; I'm out to achieve bigger and better things. That's the story of my life, for better or worse. And you know, I love that part of it, even as it brings me to the situation I'm now in.

Even as I don't know the solution, I think I know the problem. And here it is: I'm a volume guy who pushes it hard--too hard. Every single weekend I do back-to-backs and rarely do I take a day off. I'm always going for it, because, deep down, I'm an insecure runner who "finds" (false) security in pressing the pedal to the medal. I convince myself that I'm doing the right kind of training so long as it's heavy in volume. Big miles=big glory. Wait, no, it doesn't. What I now see is an equation I can't figure out (yet). And it goes something like this: X+Y+Z-A=goal achieved. In that equation, I don't know what X, Y or Z is, and I sure as hell don't know what that A is (rest? but how much?).

So in my clueless state, I'm questioning everything, including whether or not I'm consuming enough calories on a daily basis. Maybe I'm not eating enough to support how I'm training. Should I be in minimal shoes, or are Hokas and Salomons the ticket? Is 7.5 hours of sleep every night enough? Should I take one tablespoon or two tablespoons of Udo's Oil? Is a day of rest every week a requirement?

Beyond that, I'm struggling to find my new "sweet spot." What's the maximum amount of miles I can run while still improving? Is it 65 a week? 70 a week? More? Less? What about intensity? For races like Leadville, what's going to get me into the finish in under 20 hours: Track intervals? Hill repeats? Tempo running? Jump roping? Mountains? All of the above? None of the above? Ah, the 800-pound gorilla question: Am I even capable of doing Leadville in under 20 hours, especially as I live in Parker and can get to the mountains only 1-2 times a week because of family and job stuff? What about long runs? What's better for ME: back to back 20s? Or 30 on Saturday and 10 on Sunday? And here's a big question I'm dealing with: What about walking as part of my training? Since to break 20 hours at Leadville I have to average 5 miles per hour (not easy, believe me), should I also be focusing on walking? Is walking just as valuable as running, or is it just a big waste of time? Another 800-pound gorilla question: Why does sub-20 at Leadville even matter?

I'll do what it takes, but what does it take? Yeah, we're back to that mysterious equation. Hopefully I'll find the answers. This week I've incorporated some new practices. On Sunday, the day after the 50K, I rested. I walked hard and on the trail for 4 miles on Monday and then that night walked 2 miles on neighborhood streets. Then on Tuesday morning I ran nearly 9 miles and that evening walked for 3 miles hard and on the trail. This morning I did hill repeats on the road, and tonight I'm going to get back out and walk hard and on the trail. This weekend I'm going to hit the Incline and Barr Trail.

I'm taking it day by day, not sure of what will work but open to the fact that I have to try new things to see if they do work.

Because this I know: I can't keep doing what I've been doing--since it ain't working.


  1. You need to have a chat with Lucho. It may be well worth your time. You forgot one thing, your also getting older. I have noticed that myself over the last year.

  2. Jayzus. When did you lift a page out of the Hang Nine blog? ;)

    Well, there is a boat load to be said, but I think it comes down to this: DO WHAT YOU ENJOY. The more you turn this thing into the destination, the less enjoyable the journey is.

    Or something like that.

  3. Have you worked with a coach?

  4. Wyatt... like Shad said, you are getting older. Trust me it starts to change things. Finding that elusive "sweet spot" can can a challenge as what worked two years ago or even last year might now be obsolete and as you have discovered might even offer a negative ROI. Your sub 20 quest is akin to my sub 25 goal and I admit to having my own questions as to if I can do it. The important thing that I have learned this spring with all of may hassles, above all else is until things click, just keep at it and be consistent. Don't train yourself into the ground but give it time as things will turn back around. The day to day approach is good too. I feel like I have been floundering since February Wyatt and not until the past week or two have I felt like I was on. What changed? I don't know, I am trying some new tricks but I think overall it was just that wind started to blow in my favor again.

    Might see you on Barr this weekend... doing part of it Saturday morning.

  5. Wow, thanks for posting! You seemed like a guy that has it all figured out. Glad I am not alone.

    I am admittedly new to all this, but I don't subscribe to the volume theory. When I read that greats like Meltzer don't run 100 per week, that was all it took to convince me. And in the Lore of Running Noakes suggests the level of diminishing returns is between 60 and 70 miles a week.

    Again, I'm anew to it all, but I find a 5 day a week running plan with core and strenght training on off days keeps me balanced. I do trail work when I can and road work when I cannot. And, I go in cycles. For example, I just had a great marathon cycle this Spring culminating in a PR. Now I have backed off speed work for this cycle as I add miles and demanding trails to build up for ultra season.

    Thanks for being honest and keep plugging, you'll find your sweet spot. I am now eager to see how it turns out for you!


  6. I think you want it too much.

    It seems you are frustrated with your running because you have some preconceived notion of what your running should be compared to what it currently is. That is not to say you are not a good runner, but that maybe you are just trying a little too hard. Hence the frustration.

    Ultra/mountain running can take you to some amazing places with awesome people. Ditch the training plans and just have fun.

    As GZ eluded to, if the journey is not enjoyable why do it?


  7. Kind of harsh on yourself after one sub-par (for you) race...

  8. Hi. I've been running for 28 years (so I'm no spring chicken), with varying degrees of intensity over the years. Reading your blog post, what came across to me was the feeling that training has taken over at the expense of your racing. You've become addicted to the training. I don't agree with these comments re. age. This is not my experience, although inspiration is an important factor. My feeling is your leaving your energy etc. on the training ground, esp. at those altitudes, a factor which Geoff Roes has just written about. Maybe you don't need a coach, but you need to sit down with somebody and re-evaluate what you're doing running wise. Good luck.

  9. You might want to consider getting checked out by a sports doctor. I went in for a VO2max test last year and found that my body was burning protein for energy. Further blood testing showed that I was glycogen depleted and that many of my hormones were too low making it difficult to improve regardless of the training I put in.

  10. HA Shad! My first thought a couple sentences in was 'he needs to talk to Lucho'.

    Tim is not just a coach and an athlete, he is also a Physiologist (as far as you know), and he'll get you on the correct beers.

    If I roll up all of this post into one sentence to me, it says 'you care'. You care about your running and performance. And thats good. Because the same things you did yesterday or a year ago may not work today, even if you live in the same place.

    By the way, the word verification was 'asscopp'. Why would they post that on your blog?

  11. Shad: Lucho is a runner (and person) I very much respect. When the dust has settled with his Leadman adventure (and my LT100 bid), I plan to reach out to him. I do have a few questions for him about Maffetone as I recently ordered a heart rate monitor (will be delivered today).

    GZ: I do enjoy it—I love training and racing. But I also want to see better alignment between my training and race results.

    Freebird: Karl Meltzer coached me last year. Karl trains on less mileage than I do but he’s in the mountains pretty much every day and also nails his quality. I should have listened to his advice on volume…. I'm now working to be a little more strategic in what I'm doing.

    Andy: I don’t necessarily agree with Shad on the aging thing. I’m almost 39, which means I’m on the backside of my “prime,” but there are tons of athletes out there doing amazing things north of 40, including a few guys I’m good friends with (one of whom won a 100-miler when he was 48). I do agree with you, though, on the ebbing and flowing nature of training. FYI, I’ll be on the Incline/Barr on Sunday AM!

    AJ: Like golf, this is a sport you never quite master—there’s always something new to learn. I know elites who run 70 a week, and other elites who run 140 a week. We’re all an experiment of one, but I do think recovery is something I’m bad at doing (in part because I love running).

    Gangels: I agree with you. I do think I try too hard on a daily basis and don’t relax enough.

    Brownie: It’s in my nature.

    Hungarian Scotsman: Not sure I agree regarding addiction. I’m all about preparing for a race and I see what I do on a daily basis as preparation for my key event (and as a means for good mental health and stress reduction). I do agree that altitude is a HUGE factor. Seems like everyone loves the idea of living at altitude, but it has its trade-offs.

    Michael: Good idea. I’d love to get some readings back. I think the US Olympic facility in Colorado Springs does that.

    Brett: Good point. What worked last year may not work now for a variety of reasons.

    Mike: It’s always fun on here :-)

  12. Hey Wyatt - I get it all to well ... been there thinking that I deserve some "better alignment between my training and race results." I still think that too quite often.

    My point is if I focus on the expectation, I end up more times than not, not meeting those expectations.

    If instead I focus on the journey, or the process, versus the destination and the outcome, for whatever reason, the outcome is better. And if I am going to focus on the process, I ought to be sure that it is fun.

    I am not saying that is the prescription for you. I am saying it sounds familiar. This ain't a black and white answer ever either.

  13. I am 41 and moved to Colorado 10 years ago to become more of a competitive rock climber??? and climb more. I don't climb anymore, but I am a very competitive “DAD”. I miss climbing and I will get back soon, my daughter is just starting to climb. My kids changed me, I am a completely different guy – in a great way. I can't do anything the way I used to do and I guess I am OK with that – kinda-sorta. Well, I wouldn't change a thing . . . winning the Lotto wouldn't be bad though. Now holistically, without sounding like I am from 'Boulder', my life is shared with a number passions now, more than ever before - wife, kids, running and work. Even if I train harder, some thing else gives and I am not balanced which effects everything. AND I am getting older. So I can relate, in a way, to your frustration.

    I am a runner now and I love it. I only did my first marathon 10 months ago, granted it was a mountain marathon in Spain. And it was great to see you at the Dirty 30! I have a long way to go in my training or should I say experience. I feel strong and can demonstrate it in shorter runs, but am still working out the kinks in my longer runs. In my first 50, Devil Mountain, I didn't eat enough and bonked HARD. At Quadrock I made mistakes, but it was better; was shooting for a sub 10 and that didn't happen. Now the Dirty 30, I ate too much and bonked again. My stomach was not digesting and I became bloated. The 1st 10 miles I had a 11:30 min/avg, I died for the next 9 miles with an 18:00 min/avg, but then the last 3rd I came back to life averaging a 11:35 min pace. So it was a good experience for Leadville.

    Let's crank on Evans in a week!!

    May We Always Be Crazy!!!

  14. Hey Wyatt,
    I hear ya man. It definitely gets tough the older we get. Last year was a big year for me. After I ran San Diego 100 (18:12), I got another 2nd place... my 3rd in 100 milers, I really wanted to get a win under my belt. The one thing I hadn't done is volume mileage. I had always been a 70-80ish peak mileage guy. My problem in 100's seemed to be the same in all of them.. that I would slowly fade as the race went on.
    Last summer, after San Diego, I put in a LOT of mileage and a good amount of 100+ mile weeks. I went into Cascade Crest 100 really wanting to win. For me... it worked. I ran a 18:28 CR on a very tough 100 mile course. I REALLY felt like the mileage was a big difference as I was able to run the big climbs late in the race where in the past, I was hiking that type of climb. In some ways, I was disappointed to find that the volume did work for me. My time per run was way slower than it had been in the past with the mileage but I really felt that it helped me on race day. Myself being 39.. and 40 this summer, I feel like I still have 2-3 more years of being really competitive in 100 milers. I have Vermont this year and am still trying to keep my mileage high (though it is admittedly a bit lower than my peak last year). If I were you, I'd focus more on the real long runs on your feet and not worry as much about the speed per mile unless you want to focus more on marathon & 50K times. Anyway, feel free to email me if you want to talk about it more.... Rod B.

  15. Maybe age isn't the issue, but basing expectations on the achievements of others older than you isn't reasonable. Every individual ages differently, and just because some guys north of 40 continue to excel doesn't necessarily mean you will.

    When's the last time you took a real layoff, like Geoff did over this past winter? Maybe your body just needs some down time to recover?

  16. Add this song to your running playlist. It might not be your taste in music, but it really gets you pumped. Superman by Goldfinger. And ofcourse it is SKA!

    So here I am
    growing older all the time
    looking older all the time
    feeling younger in my mind

    And here I am
    doing everything I can
    holding on to what I am
    pretending I'm a superman

    May We Always Be Crazy!!!

  17. Maybe also consider different types of recovery directly after your runs, like instead of first shooting for a protein/carb drink alkalize before to tie up inflammation. Specifically if your recovery drink has whey or milk, which contains sulfur-based amino's. I always try and have a green juice or smoothie directly after a run before replenishing calories. I remember reading Rich Roll's book and he even alkalizes with cider vinegar in his recovery drinks, which has the opposite effect than you would imagine. Something to think about. The udo's is of course great to add. I think consuming more alkaline products could significantly help you. Just my two cents even though your volume is much more than mine.

  18. Hey From another "running man" (that is my blog name too!) it sounds like you are letting your drive suck the enjoyment out of the process. I have not been going as hard as you AT ALL, but my times have ebbed lately for a few reasons I am sure. It must for me be about the enjoyment, getting out there and doing what you can. Rest is important and from what I read just now perhaps rest is what you deny yourself to get rejuvinated?
    Here is my blog by the way from one running man to another!

  19. I commend you for your dedication.
    However, from reading your weekly mileage and workouts you appear to be asking too much off your body. Two long runs each weekend and a couple of quality workouts during the week, plus doubles, plus a job and a family. All of this at high altitude! Maybe try one long run a week and a tempo/hills/pace every 4th day. I don't think your performance will suffer. You are training harder and racing more marathons than world class marathoners. Look what Ryan Hall does. Just my 2cents, please don't be a slave to a daily running log. Performance on race day is what counts. Good luck!

  20. First thing I'd do is get into, buy a GPS/HRM and start checking my performance chart for signs of overtraining.

    Many elite athletes report that as they move up into and over their mid 30's that strength training is more important. Most ironman guys are stronger and larger than their ITU counterparts.

    Second is there has been tonnes of research into the valueless mileage clicked up runners with evidence pointing to diminishing returns above 50 miles per week.

    Finally I'd look to balance your family, work and training goals. Indeed as a mid 30 former full time triathlete attempting to get fit again I've had to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew. Having studied physiology at University and used to putting in 20hrs of training at that time too.

    Relax, enjoy listen to your body and find someone who understands you, your goals and you'll find new form at the marathon and up.

    Top work!