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Performance = Consistency + Genetics.
I give all of the athletes I coach that simplified formula in my introductory email. Solving it takes effort, but if you put in the time, it provides insight for structuring your running training, removing self-imposed pressure and enjoying every run.
So how can you maximize each variable?
Good running training is like the classic ’90s movie She’s All That, in which a normal student becomes the most beautiful person in the class on the day of the big dance.
Most of the time, good training is unglamorous. It’s all about getting the job done during the daily grind. The bulk of running progression comes from logging many miles over many years, some hard but most easy, focusing on avoiding major setbacks and day-to-day excuses. “Sexy” run training, replete with complexity and epicness, often ends in injury. Instead, structure your life and training in a way that prioritizes day-after-day, month-after-month and year-after-year work.
Then, on race day, you can transform into a beautiful, fleet-footed queen or king of the big dance.
1. Even one mile counts. If you are tired from work (or from binge-watching ’90s movies on Netflix) and can’t do your planned run, at least do something. I only get disappointed with my athletes if they fail to run at all when they are healthy.
2. Start slow. Take the pressure off by doing the first 5 to 10 minutes of each run extra relaxed, like you are a girl walking down the stairs on prom night in a Freddy Prinze Jr. movie.
3. Work up to at least five or six runs a week. Once your body adapts to running, it craves it. If I take even two days off, my calf muscles ache for days after I start up again.
4. Choose hard workouts that align with your goals. Two principles to remember: You need consistent mileage to support hard workouts, and any workout that substantially increases injury risk is a bad workout. So unless you are doing more than five or six hours of running per week, focus on building consistency before you build intensity beyond one focused yet safe workout (like strides or hill intervals) per week. (Runners older than 50 may want to substitute some of the running volume with cross training to avoid injury.)
5. Think long term. Running rewards personalities that can deal with delayed gratification. If you have an injury, rest it. If you are thinking of running a 50-mile race but are only training 35 miles per week, wait a year or two, until you have built up to running more miles. Approach both big and small decisions by thinking about whether they will make you a better runner a year from now.
Here’s a fun experiment: Ask the best runner you know how they did in the elementary-school gym-class mile. Chances are good that they finished in the top few, even if they had never run before that moment.
Too often, runners don’t acknowledge the prominent role genetics play in training and racing. VO2 max has a strong genetic component, and lactate threshold only slightly less. Even the way your bones are shaped matters.
Fortunately, you can train your physiology to improve massive amounts, but that improvement requires years of consistent commitment to daily running.
Interestingly, the emerging study of epigenetics may reveal that the way our genetics works is not as fixed as you might think. Epigenetics is the study of gene activation. To simplify it a bit, the genes themselves are fixed, but external factors—environment, behavior—can change the way they express. In other words, if you do some activity, like running, consistently over time, your gene expression may change to make you better at that activity—and some alterations may even be passed on to offspring. So while you have no control over your genetic code, you may have some control over how that genetic code impacts your running.
1. Don’t sweat it. No matter how hard you work, you can’t choose your parents. So don’t think about your running-related genetic luck too much. Most of us never get anywhere close to our genetic potential anyway, unless we’re training at an elite level for many years. In practice, unless you are going to use the data to structure your training, I recommend not trying to measure your genetic potential through something like a VO2 max test; it will only lead to needless self-judgment.
2. Think long term. This tip rears its boring head again! You will only find out your true genetic potential with years of dedication to any activity, whether it is running or lawyering or knitting. Don’t get discouraged and never give up on your goals along the way.
Most importantly for people thinking about doing a trail race, performance is mostly out of your control once you get to race day. Almost everyone thinks they could have gone harder or found some magic if only they had pushed a bit more, but in my experience, that is not the way it works. You do what you can—some days you have it, some days you don’t. Consistent, smart training is designed to put more days in the first category.
1. Don’t get nervous or beat yourself up. Just do what you can based on a smart plan and view race day as a party no matter what. By the time you get to the start line, the work is done, and the race itself is just a celebration of the grind it took to get there.
2. Smile every mile. Drink a beer after the race. Then go back to thinking about how you can be as consistent as possible in the next block of the training grind.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.