Training through the Midwestern winter has never been easy, but I know it is essential if I want to be in decent shape when the weather improves. I’m not sure if this winter has been easier or tougher than in the past. In some ways, it’s easier because I’ve only been running three days a week and cross-training the rest. I’ve also been able to do a variety of workouts, indoor and outdoor, speed and distance, so I’m staying mentally fresh. But in other ways it’s tougher because I’m still working my way back into shape and I really don’t have any easy days. On my long runs (of course, they are not really long runs, just 45-60 minutes, but right now for me that is a very long time to keep moving) my pace varies from 7:30 per mile to 8:00 or even a little slower. Common sense would say that slower days are the easy days, but actually the opposite is the case: on those days (like last Sunday, when I felt like I was carrying an extra 60 pounds) I had to work so hard just to keep moving. My legs felt so heavy, I was breathing so hard, and just felt like I was punching my way forward for the whole 6 miles. However, I am not allowing myself to get frustrated, telling myself to be patient, that I am improving, and that some days I just won’t feel very good. And of course the nice thing about running is, no matter how badly it goes, it’s almost impossible to feel badly about it afterwards. I mean, in my head I might be a little down, thinking: that was some awfully slow running today, painful, and maybe a sign that I won’t be able to get back in shape. But psychologically, emotionally, I feel relaxed, accomplished, optimistic. It’s so easy to forget about how bad it felt and how hard it was once it’s over.
I didn’t really plan this, but I’ve run exactly 16 miles 4 weeks in a row. I haven’t made any sort of deal with myself, but I think I just don’t want to go back down in mileage. I guess I want to go up, but I haven’t been able to do that yet either. I was a little under the weather over the holidays and I’m still being cautious with my knee. I know 16 miles a week is not going to get me far, but it’s still more than I’ve done for the last two years. And I’ve had some good workouts. I ran a 6 miler at right around 7:30 pace and felt okay doing it. I’ve had a good indoor track workout with my running buddies Tony and Bill and ran some good splits (details below). My knee has not been hurting and I know if I can just keep this up for another 6 weeks it will be March and then I can, well, I was going to say, think about racing, but maybe better to just say, move on to the next phase of my comeback. Sure, sitting here writing this, I feel pretty good, like I could get up and crank out a decent 5K, but I know that my last run I had to knock myself out to just keep moving, slowly, so it will surely be a while, and only if all goes well in the meantime, before my body is ready for racing again. I really shouldn’t even be thinking about that yet. I should just be thinking about…marching on, and so that is what I’ll do.
M: swim 1 hour, good workout (1.0)
T: track workout outdoor, 1 mile warmup, strides and drills, 8 300’s in 63, 62, 60, 61, 60, 59, 60, 58, felt okay, 6 laps steady afterwards (5 miles total) then 30 minutes weight/core workout (1.5)
W: bike 30 minutes, easy spin (0.5)
R: 5 miles, didn’t feel smooth, but knee okay (0.5)
F: swim 30 minutes steady effort, felt okay (0.5)
S: 6 miles including 4 Beach Drive Hills (very tough, moving pretty slowly by the top) (0.75)
RUN: 16 miles
TOTAL TIME: 4.25 hours
Dec 29-Jan 4
M: Swim 45 minutes, good workout (0.75)
T: Swim 1 hour, good workout (1.0)
W: 6 miles on bike trail in 45 minutes, good effort, core work after (1.0)
R: Swim 1 hour, focused on drills (left arm, rotation, kick) (1.0)
F: 1 hour run (7.5 miles), tough effort, HR 164 average, short swim (1.5)
S: weight/core workout at home (1.0)
S: walk in nature center, then 40 strides through snow on soccer field (2.5 miles), good workout (0.5)
RUN: 16 miles
TOTAL TIME: 6.75 hours
M: Weight/core workout at school, warmup with 15 minutes rowing/recumbent, swim 30 minutes, upper quads sore from snow strides (1.5)
T: Track workout (indoor), warmup with strides, 800: 2:49, 400: 77, 4 200’s: 33, full lap walk for recovery, felt good, 4 miles total, Tri Team swim practice (1.75)
W: easy ride on trainer, 90 minute swim practice (2.0)
R: weights/core at school,with 15 minutes rowing (1.0)
F: 6 mile continuous run at Pettit Center, felt pretty good, HR 162 av, clocked some laps at 7:20/7:25 pace (0.75)
S: Swim practice, lots of kicking, good workout (1.0)
S: 6 mile run, legs heavy! HR 160 av, very tough run (0.75)
RUN: 16 miles
TOTAL TIME: 9 hours
I was going to title this post “The joys of winter cross-training” but realized that wouldn’t be accurate for me because I can’t train like I used to, which was pretty much run, run, run, so now what I used to consider cross-training is simply training, and though there’s nothing like running to get in running shape, I do think all the different workouts I’m doing are helping me get in shape to have a good shot at my goals for the year.
What proof do I have? Well, my fall run workouts had all been short and fast, but I had no endurance. Over the last few weeks I’ve been able to go to the indoor track for workouts with my old college teammate Tony and have gotten a little faster, and more importantly, felt more comfortable each week. Specifically:
On 12/17, the highlight of the workout was a 6:06 mile. This was tough!
On 1/7, I ran 1.5 miles in 9:14 (6:12 at the mile and picked up the pace for a 3:02 last half mile). This felt much easier than the 6:06 mile a few weeks earlier.
On 1/14, I ran a mile in 5:54 (my first time under 6 minutes since before I got hurt 15 months ago), then 4 half miles in 2:54, 2:52, 2:50, and 2:48. Not only was I getting faster on each one, I was feeling better, like my body was remembering how to run again.
Between these workouts, I’ve done runs on the treadmill and dropped my average pace for a 4 mile run (always at 1.5 grade) from 7:05 per mile, to 7:00, 6:52, and then 6:47. Again, these are rather hard but I feel a little more comfortable with each one.
I’m sure it’s these very workouts that have done the most to improve my condition and get me ready to run faster the next time. But I’ve only been running 2-3 times a week, with a maximum mileage of 15 per week. In the past I would’ve thought there was no way I could get in any kind of shape with such low mileage. But it’s happening. How? Let me count the ways…
First of all, though I feel like I’m repeating myself, it’s swimming, with lots of intervals, because it’s the best way to give my heart and lungs a great workout. I swim hard enough so that sometimes I don’t know if I’m going to make it to the end of the pool, or if the 15 or 30 seconds rest I give myself between repeats will be enough. I’ve learned that it always is, that if I slow down it’s because my muscles tire, not because I can’t get back on top of my breathing. When I used to swim I used to just plod along, 30 minutes, 45, treat it like a run, and while that was all right, that’s not how swimmers do it—which is all intervals. As a runner, you might think it’s not sustainable, and if you were running workouts of similar duration and regularity, it wouldn’t be, your body would break down. But with swimming, you can just hammer out the repeats for an hour or more and do it as often as you want. I’m not ready to agree with my lovely perfect wife that swimming is the toughest sport , but it sure allows a person to train hard and the results of it–a strong heart and lungs–are essential for good running.
I’ve also been trying to bike twice a week. Indoors, of course. Even without this year’s polar vortex, the conditions are too cold, icy, and snowy for me to even consider riding outdoors. I use my trainer at home, watching TV, which for me ends up being kind of a bare minimum workout. In 45 or 60 minutes, I get a little lathered up, but it’s never a killer, like the kind I can do out on the roads. Recently though I went to my first ever spin class and I’m going to give this workout an A+. I did over 90 minutes, the time flew by, and I rode much harder than I would have on my own at home. What I liked about the class was having the teacher tell me when to go hard, when to back off, when to stand up, when to sit down, what my cadence should be, et cetera. It was all planned out, with music to accompany the different phases of the workout, and 30 other bikers spinning their pedals around me, which made it easy to get caught up in “the ride.” And having someone else in control of what-to-do really freed up my mind to concentrate on form, effort, power, and eventually the existential questions that come when I get close to my breaking point. Can I really keep going at this level of effort? Why? How? To what end? What’s it all about?
I could see that some of the other riders in the class did not share my enthusiasm, were not really following the workout, or just wanted it to be done, but I was, no surprise, hankering for a good workout, so it was perfect. So my goal for now, at least until the spring thaw, is to make it to at least one spin class per week. And who knows, maybe I’ll keep going after that because I think it’ll help my running by working my legs and core in a way that’s a little different than simply riding outside because the tension on the spin bike was consistent all the way around the pedal stroke and it’s hard for me to do those short, high-intensity intervals on my own. As a low-mileage runner, I’m going to need to have strong legs, stronger than I’ve had in the past, but is there any runner who wouldn’t benefit from more leg strength? I don’t think so.
Perhaps the best training tool I have is the old Nordic Track ski machine I bought out of a neighbor’s basement last fall for $85. A 45 minute workout on this comes as close to replicating a 6 mile run as I’ve found. While I feel like I’m still getting comfortable with the motion of the machine, and I can’t do intervals on it, and sometimes I feel a little twinge in my knee (if I try to go too fast or stop paying attention to form), and it’s not like running, not nearly as relaxing, the motion it asks of my body, especially the pulling forward of the legs, really uses the running muscles, the quads and hips, and when I get done with the workout, step off the machine and walk around my basement, I can feel it in my legs—and it feels almost like I’ve run.
Honestly, especially now that I’ve just explained the benefits, I realize I should do more Nordic Track. But I’ve been limiting it to once a week because sometimes I do feel that twinge in my knee. But I hope as I get stronger, I can do it more often. I rarely see it listed as a good running substitute, but it really may be the best. The best evidence is probably from 1990’s American distance running stud Bob Kempainen, who because of injuries did most of his training in the six months leading up to the Olympic trials marathon on his Nordic Track (along with aqua jogging) and surprised everyone by running a 2:12 and making the Olympic team.
Cross-country skiing, which the Nordick Track replicates, is also good winter training, and I’ve gone a few times, which has been fun, and I can feel a pleasant fatigue in my legs afterwards, but as an inexperienced skier, I pay more attention to keeping my balance and not falling down, and can’t ski well enough to put out any kind of sustained effort. Hopefully that will come in time. Cross-country skiers have some of the highest recorded aerobic capacities on record, and working on my ski form should be worth the effort, as skiing in the park or through woods will surely be more fun than doing it in my basement.
Still, I’ll take what I can get for now, and along with a couple trips to the weight room each week, this is what I can get. How well it will translate into good running when the weather is better remains to be seen, but I think that even if my knee was stronger, even if I’d never been injured, I’d try to incorporate these workouts into my routine instead of just trying to maintain mileage and slogging through winter. A lot of the winter runs I’ve done in the past, in three layers of clothes, going slowly over ice and snow, just don’t provide the benefits, of either a good-weather run, or of these winter training activities I’ve been doing instead. Again, I know there’s nothing like running to get in shape for running, but that doesn’t mean running is the only way to get in better shape for running.
It occurs to me as I reach the end of this post that while the title I started with is “the joys of winter training,” I’ve only discussed training and haven’t mentioned “joy” one time. Well, seeing as last year at this time I was only halfway through my 6 weeks on crutches and didn’t know if I’d ever be able to run another step, I guess every workout is pretty joyful for me. I do feel like I’m getting my running legs under me again, which makes me happy, but wherever these workouts may lead me, I’ll go. I think that’s the key, right? To keep going….
I don’t think I’d feel compelled to write an end-of-the-year post if it hadn’t been exactly one year since I woke up from knee surgery to have my doctor tell me he’d had to do a microfracture, that I’d be on crutches for 6 weeks, and may never run again. Luckily, I’ve been able to get back to running a bit, and though I’ve had some good workouts this last month (hung on the heels of my friends Tony and Bill for most of a long indoor track workout and ran 4 miles on the treadmill at close to 7 minute pace), 2013 was definitely a year of recovery and rehab. Though I’ve amped up my training at different times during the year (I went on my swimming kick for a while, then a biking kick), I’ve kind of been waiting for the year to end before I embarked on a serious training plan. Now I think I can start it, have a pretty good idea what it might look like, and have some goals in mind for 2014.
I’ll start with my main goal and work backwards from that. While I do want to try to break 5:00 for the mile again, that may be too ambitious for this year (I can’t even run 1 lap at that pace yet). Instead, I want to run a sub 18 minute 5K (that’s 5:46 pace and I think I can run at least ¾ of a mile at that pace). While this would have been an easily attainable goal a few years ago (not easy, mind you, I would have had to train and race hard to achieve it) taking into consideration my present condition and my restrictions going forward, it’s fairly ambitious. In fact, I haven’t run under 18 minutes for a 5K for a few years, though my running goals the past few years have been focused on the marathon and the workouts I did were generally longer and slower. Still, in the past, to get myself in this kind of shape, I would have planned to run about 50-60 miles per week (on average 2 fast days per week, one long run, and the rest easy to moderately paced runs) with a bit of cross-training thrown in for variety. With that running, and all the running I’ve done over the years, I would’ve gotten by mainly on running efficiency. The basic rule of training for anything is that the more you do something, the more efficient your body gets at doing that very thing, and even though I don’t have the speed I did when I was younger, I could have gotten myself in shape to maintain 5:46 pace for a bit over 3 miles.
But now, with my precarious left knee, I’ve got to go about it an altogether different way. Of course, if you know about running, you know my training plan has been backwards since I started running again in September. Ideally, a runner starts with easy runs, distance runs, builds strength, then increases the intensity of the workouts to get in race shape, the traditional training pyramid. But I started at the top–with strides, sprints, track workouts, and intervals. Only recently I’ve begun to feel halfway decent on my longer (4-5 mile runs). And the only thing that allowed this was struggling through some painful 4-5 mile runs. In sports, specificity is the key. You have to train the body to do what you want it to do, which of course makes this year a real challenge for me because I simply can’t run that much or that often.
So how will I do it? Get in good running shape without running? Well, of course the key workouts will still be the 2 fast running workouts each week—track workouts, hill repeats, tempo runs, and time trials. These have to be even better than they’ve been in the past. But if my knee hurts for a day or two afterwards, those may be the only runs I do. I really hope that when the weather improves I’ll be able to get out for one “easy” run per week—45 minutes or an hour along the lakefront or on the trail–these runs will build a little endurance, but the main goal will be to just enjoy the feeling of running–but I can only do this if my knee improves (of course, I realize another option is to skip the hard days altogether, forget about racing goals, and just run 2-3 times a week purely to “enjoy the feeling of running” but I’m not ready for this yet as I know the only way to run good races is to knock myself out with hard workouts and besides that at this point I get a lot more enjoyment out of that).
All right, so that gives me 2-3 runs per week, with mileage of 15-18 miles per week, which seems like hardly enough to get in shape because my running efficiency will simply not be what it used to be. To overcome that I’ve got to become better in other ways–by developing new strengths and fortifying existing weaknesses. The way to do this will be to intensify and be more consistent with all the cross training I’ve been doing this past year. My cross-training options are: biking, swimming, cross-county skiing/elliptical, and weight-training. I guess I can throw walking/hiking in there as well, though I typically get no elevated heart rate with that (though I did buy myself a 40 pound weighted vest I plan to wear—with that and my 5 pound ankle weights I should be able to tire myself out and isolate my running muscles to some extent). I don’t know exactly how my schedule will look, but I’m going play around with it as the new year starts. The simplest plan would be to do every type of workout twice a week—2 runs, 2 bikes, 2 swims, 2 ski workouts, 2 weight workouts. That’s 10 workouts and 8-10 hours a week, and I think that will do the job (for comparison’s sake, over the last 12 weeks I’ve averaged 9 workouts and 7 hours of training per week).
Of course, I’ll be adaptable and adjust here and there for weather and circumstances–if I run 3 times in a week, I’ll skip a ski workout; if my knee is bothering me, I’ll skip my run and do more biking. Though it’s been hard in winters past with ice and snow to maintain my training (that is, mileage) goals, this year I’ve got no excuses—I can work out (treadmill, weights, elliptical) at the Y or at school. I can get in the pool. I have access to an indoor track. I have a Nordiktrak and weight bench in my basement. I am going to buy cross country skis (today!). I’ve got a trainer for my bike. And I think if I maintain something close to this schedule, and if my running workouts continue to progress, and if I’m able to keep eating well (plant power!) to maintain a good racing weight, and if I stretch after (most) every workout, and if the running gods smile on me, I’ve got a good chance at breaking 18 minutes in 2014.
While I’m looking forward, I’ve got a few other (compatible) goals rolling around in my head. This year I’d also like to:
Do at least three triathlons—maybe even beat my best time for the Olympic distance tri (I won’t be able to run as fast as I did, but I should be able to swim and bike faster),
Bench press my body weight (maybe I will try to squat this too),
Break my old record of 75 pushups in a row,
Do 12 pull-ups,
Ride 100 miles (I’ll set a time goal for this when I get closer to it—maybe under 6 hours if I time-trial it (ride by myself) (faster if I’m in a group),
Do an open-water swim race (probably Big Shoulders in Chicago—the 2.5K option—with wetsuit).
Wow, looks like it’s going to be a good year. Here’s to 2014!