Monday, October 29, 2012

Gotta be slow to be fast

...in the right measure (with apologies to Nick Lowe).

I am tapering for the Pensacola Marathon on November 11, and as always, I am stressing about whether I will be able to meet, or even come close to, any of my goals, which, of course, are all based on time. I want to, at least, run faster than last year's Rocket City Marathon (4:20), and I would be over the moon if I could beat my 2005 Richmond Marathon time (4:10).

But my training of late has been heart rate based, which always makes me not only feel slow, but also convinces me that I have forgotten how to be "fast" ("fast" being a relative term).

Heart rate training begins with a test. It's no wonder I hate it from the beginning. I hate tests. I have taken these "tests" a few times over the years. This time, it was a "step" test. On paper, it doesn't look so bad. 

  • Step 1: go to a track, warmup really, really, really slowly. 
  • Step 2: run 800 #1 at a heart rate that is barely perceptible. At the end, record the time it took to run the 800 and the RPE. This first 800 required me to walk, stop, take a nap, and took a few hours to complete. 
  • Step 3: run 800 #s 2 through 8 at progressively higher heart rates, trying to achieve max heart rate on the final one (estimated max based on history...races, etc.). 800 #2 was a wee bit faster and more active than #1. Numbers 3, 4, and even 5 were not too bad. I started to feel as if I was running and as if it was something natural to do. Then came the final 3. Apparently, I peaked on #6. After that, my heart rate barely budged, yet I felt like I was running so hard I might fall down. By #8, my average heart rate was actually lower than #7, but I finished slightly faster and was wheezing so hard it took me a long time to get my breath back enough to write down the results. 
  • Step 4: Transcribe results to table and send off to coach.
  • Step 5: "Voila," new heart rate training zones.
For some strange reason, I was feeling confident that my updated zones would make running "easier" because, well, I had "grown" into my heart rate. Yeah. That's the scientific approach. It appears, however, that my version of "science" doesn't fit with the real, hard data. New heart rate zones look something like this:

  • Zone Recovery (ZR) - Get out of bed. Make a cup of coffee.
  • Zone 1 - Walk the dog.
  • Zone 2 - Run a little bit, but make sure to take walking breaks to get the rapidly rising heart rate back down where it's supposed to be.
  • Zone 3 - Run all day.
  • Zone 4 - Race.
  • Zone 5 - Blow up.


Debi has been patiently listening to me whine and complain about heart rate training ever since I first started using heart rate 5 years ago (per her direction, but, heck, that's why I hired a coach--to direct me). I recently came across a March 2007 log entry that read, "Okay. Really. The HRM just sucks." 

But, here's the thing. It works. I know it works. If nothing else, the results of the other athletes Debi coaches are proof that it works (because I am fairly certain she is using the same training approach with them as she is with me). Most of them have experienced significant improvements in their training and racing. Even if you compare my 2007 heart race/pace with my current heart rate/pace, it is obvious that I am running quite a bit faster at lower heart rates now than I was then. In fact, I have this sneaking suspicion that all of the 11 minute/mile and 12 minute/mile pace groups I led for the Fleet Feet marathon training program a couple of years ago have had a major impact on my more recent PR race times. And I have to confess, I told many of those participants (as well as other running/tri friends) that it's okay, and it's even very good, to run slow most of the time.

On the other hand, it's so darn frustrating. I allow myself to get sucked into staring endlessly at the readout on my Garmin, freaking out when I see the number go 1 beat above the prescribed zone or lamenting my overall sluggish pace. None of my friends is really interested in working out with me because most of my workouts are "too slow." Sometimes, it's as if the data is whispering to me, "you're doing it all wrong."

For now, I am sticking it out. The new heart rate zones are recent. We set them up only a few weeks ago. So, I have had to work on the adjustment while trying to simultaneously recover from a half ironman in September and train for a marathon in November. The only goal that matters at this point is getting through the training and to the finish line in one piece, uninjured, and relatively happy. 

That doesn't stop me from grumbling, though.

"Baby, you've gotta be slow to be fast."

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