In My Body Or In My Head

How's my training going?

This past Sunday, I was scheduled to run a 10K race. I couldn't find any local 10K races for April 14th, and the one I signed up for on April 13th was rained-out. So I did the next best thing, was to run what the kids are calling a "virtual 10K." In other words, I ran ten kilometers all by myself, pretending it was a race. It's definitely not the same thing as a real race, but it's also better than nothing.

I aimed for an average of 6:00 per mile and started off strong at 5:50/mile pace. During the second mile, I ran up a steep hill, which was followed by a two-mile stretch of running into the wind, followed by another steep hill. The next four miles were all over 6:20/mile pace. My final two miles came in under 6:10 pace and I finished with a 38:38. Final average pace was 6:12/mile. That's quite a large difference from my goal pace of 6:00, so I was disappointed on the one hand. On the other hand, it's hard to run at race pace when you're all by yourself; so, with that in mind, I wasn't all that disappointed. Overall, I was satisfied, as far as it goes.

Still, this training regimen I've been working on has taken up a lot of time and effort. I last ran a 10K on August 25th, 2018, and my time was 37:29, more than a minute faster than Sunday, and I managed to do that with very little training and on an extremely, unpleasantly hot day. I was facing stronger winds and steeper, longer hills this past weekend, but I've been training hard for eight solid weeks.

At the halfway point of my half-marathon training, I am not where I would otherwise expect to be. Why not?

One explanation is that heart rate zone training doesn't work for me. During my competitive racing days, the first mile of any competition was always the most crucial for me, since it set the pace of the entire race. If I ran a good first mile, I knew I'd have a chance of running a good race. By contrast, I have never successfully recovered a race from a bad first mile. Heart rate zone training, in which I am required to run 7:30 pace, 7:45 pace, 8:00 pace during recovery runs, might be habituating me to slower running. If so, it's making faster runs more difficult for me.

That's a plausible explanation, but it's also a bit of a weak excuse to claim that the reason I can't run a fast 10K is because I have to run slow on my easy runs.

This brings me to my second possible explanation: Maybe I am not trying hard enough during my threshold runs. In the moment, some of these threshold runs have felt quite difficult. After they're finished, though, I always feel… fine. I don't necessarily want to believe that I'm leaving something in the tank, especially when I think I'm pushing it. But how energetic should a person feel after a very hard workout? It's one thing to feel fully recovered the next day, but it's another thing to never feel like my muscles have gotten a good, solid workout. I remember in the good old days, if I had a tough track workout my muscles were always burning the next day. Not my joints. Not my tendons. My muscles felt like they'd been through an hour of heavy lifting at the gym, all from a track workout. The truth is, I haven't felt like that at all since starting my half-marathon training -- with the exception of today, this morning, the day after my 10K time trial.

Now, again, part of this might be the Z4 upper heart rate limit on my hard workouts. My watch beeps when I hit "Zone 5," and I try to keep it at Z4. But should I? Why shouldn't I push as hard as I need to in order to hit my goal pace? Why should I slow myself down during speed workouts? And who's to say that the heart rate zones on my watch are even accurately configured? They're based on an algorithm. It might be a good algorithm, for all I know, but there is no guarantee, and if my times aren't dropping despite running hard workouts and 60-mile training weeks, isn't that a problem?

Of course, in the back of my mind, there is another invidious little voice whispering about a third reason: It's all in my head. Maybe taking on a big, 16-week training plan has gotten into my head and I haven't been able to relax and stride out like I need to. Maybe more casual running works for me specifically because I don't put this kind of pressure on myself. Or maybe the pressure would be good for me, if I could handle it.

Coincidentally, my daughter had a sports experience this weekend in which she may have put a little too much pressure on herself, to deleterious effect. Perhaps the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Perhaps the tree needs to get out of his own head about running and get back to pushing hard and enjoying himself.

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