Through coaching and writing, I try to pass on information to help runners improve their performance. Much of the advice focuses on how to avoid overtraining, how to avoid injury, and how to stay healthy. I preach about balance and recovery. And, sometimes I am wrong.
I have just started advising a promising elite marathoner (let's call him Bill) who will shortly fly to Kenya to spend eight weeks training at an altitude of 7,000 feet. Going to altitude presents all sorts of interesting questions about individual physiological responses. After years of learning how to plan altitude training so runners positively adapt and do not wear themselves out, I am reasonably confident in developing a program that will work for Bill in Kenya.
It just so happens that Bill will have 30 or so other guys to train with in Kenya, some of whom have run a 2:08 marathon or sub 27 minutes for 10,000 meters. Their pictures grace RT regularly. These guys like nothing better than to do interval workouts of six times two km at 6:00 a.m. at high altitude. They like to do 25 repetitions of one minute hard and one minute “floating.” They look forward to 30 km time trials to see who in the group is really fit. These guys are the definition of toughness and dedication. They are also capable of running Bill into the ground.
If I obey the guidelines of exercise physiology and much of my usual advice, I would advise Bill to train by himself, not to thrash himself silly training with a bunch of guys who have lived and run their whole lives at high altitude and most of whom have run faster than him at sea level. But, and here's the thing, Bill's objective is to be the best runner he can be. Would the safe route lead to a cautious runner who never reaches his full potential? Why go to Kenya to train alone? Isn't there an advantage to training with the best and learning from them?
Perhaps we know too much. Perhaps in our efforts to stay healthy and uninjured, we have become too cautious. If the objective is excellence, do we know too much for our own good?
As in business, there is a risk-reward system inherent in training. If you train comfortably, you can be pretty much guaranteed of running reasonably well and staying healthy. If you train a bit harder, you will very likely race better, and your risk of injury, illness, and overtraining will increase marginally. Eventually, you reach a point at which the incremental risk of more training outweighs the likely improvement in your running. I suspect that we have been systematically overemphasizing the risks and underestimating the rewards. I suspect that we run the risk of ingrained mediocrity due to a systemic bias against risk.
Perhaps we know too much. Or, perhaps we just need to reconsider the optimal balance of risk and reward. If your objective is excellence, then perhaps a bit less caution is called for. Perhaps a more aggressive approach to training with its incrementally higher risk will help you achieve your objective. This raises a fundamental question: To reach your full potential, do you have to live on the wild side and take some risks?
Well, yes and no. The key to success is to understand both the risks and the potential rewards. The most successful runners take calculated risks based on an understanding of physiology and an understanding of their bodies. They find that fine line where the potential gains roughly balance the potential risks and train close to that edge. Are you training by the edge of your abilities or staying safely within your limits? The question is equally relevant whether your goal is a 2:30 marathon or breaking 4 hours for the first time.
If you want to reach your full potential you need to train optimally. You cannot afford to train hard for the sake of training hard and leave your races on the roads and track while you recover from injury and overtraining on race day or to waste your time and effort on ineffective training.
To train optimally, you need knowledge. To reach your potential, you need to read everything you can (taking much of it with a grain of salt) and pick the brains of experienced coaches and runners. And you need to learn to discern between the running gurus whose role is to help you simply survive your first marathon and those who can help you shave another minute off your personal best.
You also need self-knowledge, the kind which can only be gained by years of experience. You need to know how your body is likely to react if you do repeat 1200s today and a 15 miler tomorrow when it¹s 85 degrees in the shade.
If you take your running seriously, it is your responsibility to learn as much as you can about training, about recovery, about hydration and carbohydrate intake, about what shoes suit your biomechanics, and how much sleep you need. Then decide what to do with that knowledge. If your objective is recreation, then err on the side of caution as an insurance policy to keep yourself healthy and injury free. But if your objective is performance, then find that fine line of what your body can handle and take it to the limit.
In seeking excellence, you will periodically go over the line and need to back off, but with knowledge and experience you will achieve your running potential. So Bill (and all you other performance-driven runners), learn as much as you can about training and about your own body. Then go train with your local version of the Kenyans and learn from them. There is always more to know.
(This column originally appeared in Running Times Magazine.)