No Garbage Miles: A Case Study

My last blog post was about running high-quality miles whenever you run. It was verbose and rambling, and probably not very useful to the average user. (Where, "average user," in my case, means "Russian bot." But anyway.) Today, I'd like to provide a case study on "garbage miles," miles that you put in for no good reason, that don't do you very much good. And when I say "you," I mean "me."

Earlier, I ran a workout for which I had great expectations. On paper, it was supposed to be a really good workout. In practice? Garbage miles. Let's take a look.

My goal with this run was to complete increasingly faster-paced laps of a one-mile loop around my neighborhood. Here's a graph of my per-mile pace (grey) compared to my heart rate (red):

You can see that, at least nominally, I achieved my goal. My pace increased steadily throughout the run, and indeed every mile lap was faster than the one before it. This was an eight-mile workout, eight laps, each one faster than the previous. Looks like a good workout. My Strava "relative effort score" was nice and high for this workout, too. All the "data" says it should have been a great workout.

The problem here is that I ran eight miles and only hit my lactate threshold at about mile number six. In effect, I ran two good-quality miles, preceded by six miles of complete garbage. That's about forty-five minutes of running that wasn't really doing me much good at all, followed by about thirteen minutes of tempo-paced running. It's better than nothing, but if I were going to push myself today, why on Earth did I put in 45 minutes of garbage and 13 minutes of decent stuff?

By the time I got home, I knew I had blown it. 

A better way to have run this workout would have been to speed up sooner. Maybe the first mile or two could have been slow, and I could have considered them "warmup miles," but after that, I should have gotten right down to business. My third mile certainly should have been well under 7:00/mile pace and dipping into my lactate threshold, and I should have worked my way to sub-6:00 miles.

Indeed, I started my workout hoping for at least one sub-6:00 mile. The reason I wasn't able to achieve that is because I spent the majority of my running time on slow garbage miles. 

It was an interesting mental exercise to run the workout I ran today, and perhaps it could have been a good workout if I had put in two or three more miles. But I didn't. I quit to early, or I didn't start out fast enough, and ultimately I sacrificed what could have been a great workout. 

The lesson here is that good runners push themselves harder than just what looks good on paper. Good runners push into their lactate thresholds and keep the heat on themselves for longer than they can really stand it. If I want to become a better runner, that's what I have to do, too.


Running Fast Versus Logging Miles

In the old days - say, the 1960s and 1970s - one of the prevailing training techniques involved logging a ton of miles, where "ton" means one hundred miles per week, or more. Anyone who was serious about running was putting in that kind of mileage, including and especially the top running talent in the world.

Over time, a new philosophy began to take root, which held that quality miles were more important than the sheer quantity of those miles. Many runners, especially recreational runners, began to find success in focusing on a couple of speed workouts per week and a long run - so, three major workouts per week, combined with either very slow and light running on the other days, or even cross-training. Here it is important to note that "success" means something on the order of being able to run a marathon at a 7:00 per mile average pace (for men). 

While I've been out of the competitive running game for quite some time now, my impression (based on how I've seen elite runners train, as recorded on their websites and memoirs) is that the current vogue way to train is a sort of combination of the two approaches. In this combined approach, the runner gives 100% to his three weekly hard workouts. That's 100% to the weekly long run (comprised of 75% slow, easy running and the last 25% at a threshold pace), 100% to the weekly threshold runs, 100% to the weekly speed workout; and then lots of long, slow miles the remaining days. Under this approach, a competitive runner might be running speed and threshold runs in the 5:30-6:00 per mile range, while doing all other running at 7:30 pace, 8:00 pace, sometimes even slower than that. 

Sometime over the past couple of years, I adopted this new approach. In part, I did so because I was experimenting with heart rate zone training, and that's what ends up naturally happening when you run in Zone 2 for extended periods of time, you run at 8:00 pace. It's bonkers. But I was also inspired by what I was reading from elite athletes, and they, too, seemed to be taking it quite easy on their off days. Well, if they can do it, why shouldn't I do it?

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Unfortunately, and probably predictably, the result of all of this slower running has been... slower running. When I first moved to Texas, I felt silly if I ran a mile over about 6:50. In general, I tried to stay at or under 6:45 pace. For the past couple of years, I've been running 7:40s and thinking to myself, "Oh, well. It's not a fast day, so it's not a big deal."

While I absolutely believe there is some truth to this, I think what has happened here is that some relatively important concepts have become flattened out and converted into bad advice. 

This is common in the fitness world. When "HIIT" cardio training came into vogue, it was just a fancy term for what endurance athletes had been doing for years: dedicating 1-2 days per week to interval training at high speeds. Eventually, the recommendation for HIIT morphed into an argument "against" low-intensity, steady-state (LISS) cardio, which is what endurance athletes do on non-HIIT days. But that's nonsense. The correct way to train is to do HIIT on some days and LISS on others. Fitness trainers, unfortunately, did not get that memo, and started recommending that their clients do HIIT (good) at the expense of LISS (bad). 

And so we have a similar issue in running today. Mindlessly logging 100+ mile weeks is probably a bad thing if you're not thinking about the overall quality of your workouts. Focusing all of your energy on three workouts per week and then completely forgetting weekly mileage is also probably bad. Giving full effort to your most challenging workouts is an absolutely wonderful idea, as is taking things easy on your recovery days. But shuffling along at 7:40 pace for mile after mile, just because you're not doing a speed workout, is completely and utter nonsense, and I feel a little stupid for drinking that particular cup of Kool-Aid.

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In the old days, before we had things like Strava "Fitness & Freshness" graphs, my general approach to getting into great running shape was like this:

  1. Spend about two weeks doing calisthenics, with emphasis on push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, wall presses, calf raises and toe taps.
  2. Run 3 miles per day, at about 6:45 per mile pace.
  3. Once that feels comfortable, increase to 4 miles per day at the same pace.
  4. Once that feels comfortable, increase to 5 miles per day.
  5. ...and so on, until...
  6. At 50-60 miles per week (or more, depending on training goals), start to incorporate speed workouts and dedicated long runs.
  7. Then, taper for your race.
This training approach is inherently sound. At every stage, the runner is preparing to take on progressively greater loads, but waiting to ensure that he never pushes beyond his current fitness level. And, importantly, no day is wasted on mindless running. The increase from daily miles of 3 to 4 to 5 and beyond serves a specific purpose, building the endurance base from nothing to something. Once the base is achieved, then additional, harder workouts become the focal point. At that point, the runner is so conditioned to running at 6:45 pace or so that he can easily do so even on easy days. No big deal. And it shouldn't be a big deal, especially for a fast runner.

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Years ago, I remember meeting fellow runners who were much slower than me. I'd speak to them and learn that they were putting in so many more miles than I was, and yet running so very much more slowly. Why? I remember hearing my wife talk about a friend who was running X many miles, and yet still didn't look as fit as I did. And I remember saying, "Yeah, but he doesn't run like I run."

That statement reflects the notion of quality over quantity. Don't just mindlessly run miles, run them with heart. Run hard and fast. Push your body. A daily run - even an "easy run" - is not supposed to be easy. The goal is not merely to "log some miles." "Logging some miles" won't help you run better or faster. The real question is, what kind of miles are you running, and for what purpose? 

Thus, in the end, I've come full-circle in realizing that logging 50 miles a week at a slow pace makes about as much sense as logging 50 miles a week at race pace. Your daily run is supposed to make you healthier. If you're finding it easy then you're probably not making your body any healthier. Oh, sure, you're getting some fresh air, and that's better than nothing. But do you want to run faster? If so, then do it.

One problem here, though, is that Strava and Garmin algorithms don't currently seem to be able to measure this. On these platforms, you set up your heart rate zones and/or your pace zones, and then your runs and perpetually measured against those zones. The idea that your zones don't change from October to November is... bizarre. You're either running at your physical peak (which is not true of hardly any of us), or you're progressing or regressing in some way. If instead you find yourself stagnant, then there is something seriously wrong with your training regimen. And if your times are flat, but your "Strava Fitness Curve" is higher, what does that really even mean? Nothing.

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Anyway, there is a lot of information going on in this blog post, and I realize I've rambled quite a bit. I wanted to get this information down in writing so that I could think about it a bit more clearly. In the future, I will need to organize these thoughts a little better. 

For now, the key messages are:

  • Ensure that every mile you run is of a high quality and dedicated to a specific purpose.
  • Ensure that your training is moving in a direction, not just stagnating.
  • Focus on your running paces more than you focus on your running data. Run to run faster, don't run to score more internet points.
  • If you're not running fast enough, it might be time to back up and start over, three miles a day at a good, solid pace, until that's easy and it's time to add more miles.