Training lessons I learned the hard way

Youth brings with it boundless energy and enthusiasm, and the opportunity to make mistakes. Age brings experience, scar tissue, and occasional glimpses of wisdom. During 34 years of running, I have made many mistakes and learned many lessons (some of them, unfortunately, more than once). Through hard work, determination, and a healthy dose of luck, I enjoyed a successful competitive career. Good luck was definitely involved in reaching peak fitness for both the 1984 and 1988 Olympic trials. The problem with good luck is that you cannot depend on it. If I could relive my running career, I would, hopefully, avoid making the same training mistakes all over again. If I knew then, what I know now, here are seven things I would do differently.

1. Not train through illness. More often than not, training through a cold was a huge mistake. A number of times, trying “to get away with” one more hard workout helped a normal head cold develop into bronchitis. Instead of requiring three or four easy training days to kick the cold, I ended up with two to three weeks of lost training. In fact, this training error caused me to withdraw from one marathon and almost cost me the 1984 Olympic trials marathon. It was easier to keep training hard, than to acknowledge that I was sick and take a few days of easy running. Looking back through old training diaries, it is easy to see where the mistakes were made.

2. Taper longer before races. Reducing training leading up to races eliminates the cumulative fatigue of training, which is fairly obvious. Actually, I figured this out after only 15 years of racing, but left many races earlier in my career out on the training track. Too often, I would try to sneak in a hard workout early in the week of an important 10K and wonder afterwards why I was flat for the race. I did not have the discipline to take it easy when I felt good leading up to a race. In hindsight, longer tapers would have brought more consistent race results.

3. Correct the root causes of injuries. Whenever I was injured, I would try to get over the injury as quickly as possible, and would then go back to training the same as before. Looking back, I established clear patterns of injuries over the years. If I had stepped back, recognized the pattern, and corrected the root causes of my injuries, then I would not have been on the sidelines so often. As it was, I missed opportunities to learn from my injuries, and repeated the same mistakes over and over. For example, many of my injuries were due to muscle imbalances, principally weak abdominal muscles and a tight lower back and hamstrings. With core stability training and consistent stretching, I would have eliminated these imbalances, and would likely have broken the injury cycle.

4. Run on the treadmill on high-pollution days. Now that I know what air pollution can do to a runner’s lungs and general health (see Running and Pollution), I would abide by air quality warnings and run on the treadmill. In Boston, there were generally 4 to 6 bad air days per year, almost invariably in July and August. Looking back, I never had good training runs on those days, and sometimes had trouble breathing deeply or running hard for a few days afterwards. Running indoors on a treadmill, while incredibly boring, would have been a healthier alternative during those few times per year when the air outside was unhealthy.

5. Limit the length of my longest training runs. Personal experience and observations as a coach have convinced me that long runs greater than 22 miles take much more out of the body than do runs in the range of 20 to 22 miles. While one or two training runs of up to 24 miles may enhance marathon preparation, anything beyond that is counterproductive. I occasionally included runs of 27 to 30 miles in my marathon preparations and believe that I ran slower in my marathons because of those efforts. For example, in preparing for the 1985 World Cup Marathon in Hiroshima, I ran two very demanding 27-milers and a 30-miler in a four-week period. The World Cup Marathon was on a lightning-fast course. I was very strong but had little speed, and blew a great opportunity for a personal best time.

6. Take at least one true recovery day each week. By training too hard on my scheduled easy days, I would often be a bit tired for the next hard day, so that workout would not go as well as planned. That would lead me to run the next scheduled recovery day a bit harder to somehow “make up” for the slower than expected workout. I would end up in a vicious cycle in which my recovery days were done too hard and the quality of my hard days was mediocre. I did not have the discipline to train easily when I felt good (or was frustrated) on a planned recovery day.

7. Cross-train harder when injured. I had a tendency to get down in the dumps and only cross-train half-heartedly when injured. This only made it harder to regain race fitness after the injury. I was so locked in to running for training, that it was hard to accept the value of other forms of training. If I could do it all again, I would train as religiously when injured as when healthy, in order to reach top form again more quickly. Psychologically, serious cross-training would have occupied my mind with something productive, rather than ruminating on the injury and the fact that I couldn’t run. My wife reports that I was much easier to live with on those occasions when I did hard workouts running in the water or cycled diligently during an injury.

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