Sunday, August 21, 2011

Consistency

It's no secret that consistent practice of any physical activity can and typically does lead to improved performance at that activity. If only it were really that simple though. In the case of something like running there is only so much running that our bodies can handle before it's too much. This amount varies from person to person, but in the case of most experienced ultrarunners I think there is more of a tendancy to run too often than not enough. I do think consistency is crucial to maximize one's potential, but in the case of something as physically degrading (if overdone) as ultrarunning I think long term sustained consistency is much more important than short term consistency. This is to say that I think it's a lot more important to be consistent over the course of months and even years than it is to be consistent over the course of days or weeks.

Why is long term consistency so important in this sport? Running 50 or 100 miles is not a matter of precision and fine tuning. It is a matter of deep rooted mental and physical strength and endurance which is developed through a series of micro adaptations that we make over the course of years. No matter how hard you train in the 2 or 3 months leading up to your first 50 or 100 mile race you are going to get worked over really hard in that race. Of course there are random exceptions, but everyone I know has been physically hammered by their first ultra. On the flip side of this I see folks (myself included) who have trained and raced consistently for a few years (or in some cases for decades) who have been able to make these gradual adaptations such that they can race every few weeks and only the occasional "race gone bad" has the extreme physical effect that those first few ultras seem to have on everyone. I remember shortly after I ran my first 50 miler someone told me that if I kept doing them fairly regularly that my body would "learn" to do this without even being sore the next day. At the time I thought there was no chance of this. Now, 5 years and about 35 races later, I rarely have very much soreness after a 50 mile race.

Anyhow, if you've read this far you might now be thinking, "okay, good point about long term consistency, but this doesn't make short term consistency unimportant." To some degree I think it does though, because in my experience the most likely way to be consistent over the long term is to not over do short term consistency which in almost all cases seems to lead to eventual injury, fatigue, or burnout that limits long term consistency. This is to say that rather than focusing too much on trying to run a certain amount everyday, or a certain amount of time/mileage each week I think most ultrarunners could benefit a lot from just adopting a lifestyle of going out and running when their bodies and minds (and logistics of day to day life) allow for it and not so much when they don't. Running every single day for a year or running 100 miles a week for a year (if you are one of the rare few to pull this off without getting injured or burnt out) isn't going to make you nearly as capable of an ultrarunner as running a consistent and challenging amount of mileage/hours per year for several years. A few weeks without much running, or even a month, will do virtually nothing to set us back once we have built up all these micro adaptations that this kind of long term consistency leads to. But we can only get to this point if we can stay generally healthy for a long period of time.

How do we best do this? By not focusing too much on short term consistency and just taking individual days as they come and letting our bodies dictate when and how much we run. Of course this is just my opinion about all of this. And of course there are many folks who defy this theory, but I would argue that most ultrarunners would actually run more (and faster) over the course of the long haul if they focused less on trying to run a certain amount each day or week and just ran each day and each week what felt right, taking into account the physical, the mental, and the logistics of day to day life as it comes at us. When your body and mind feels good and you have the time in your day to go out and run like crazy then go out and run like crazy. But when you're not feeling good or you just don't have the time to squeeze in a run without it being too much of an extraction on the rest of your life, then just do what you need to do to take care of your body and/or your life and don't stress about not running enough that day or that week. By not running on these days you'll actually be making yourself a better runner over the long haul.

22 comments:

Doug said...

Great post!
And personally speaking, very timely. I did my first ultra this year and I wasn't the least bit sore afterwards. Despite this I took it easy for a week and resumed about thirty miles the next week. During my long run, Bam! my meniscus lean knee went nuts. Needless to say I ended up taking another week off and while I'm good to go according to my orthopedist, the lesson is not lost on me. I was simply too focused on numbers and ignored my body and psyche. If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.
Cheers!

Larry Linux said...

Thanks so much for this post Geoff!

Since returning to trail running about a year ago I have really obsessed over mileage numbers and my miniscule weekly totals; so much so that just last month I found myself not running that much at all. I need to focus more on the moment and enjoying my training. Having the time and the physical ability to run is a blessing in and of itself.

Thanks again for this timely encouragement.

eric said...

Your post, to me, is hard to come by, good old common sense. Every decision I make these days, biomechanics, speedwork, negative splits, tapers, etc... Seems to lack one key element: me.

The Internet is the biggest source, and all in all, I think there is just plain too much info out there about running, too many opinions from people I have so much respect for. Simple fact is.... What works for them, Works for them... And maybe we can learn a thing or two from it, but it's really about finding what works for each of us individually.

Running, and as I am learning, especially distance running is more mental than other athletic endeavors. I'm constantly surprised by what my body CAN do if my mind is in the right place; and constantly at war with myself to stop trying to push the limits. Like with life, learning to read your own signals, getting in tune with yourself... It's not as easy ad it seems. But I think you've nailed it, Geoff. Reading that info, made by you, for you... That's the key to figuring out how to make yourself as good as you can be, in running and so on.

Good timing for me to read your post as well. Time to take a week off, so I don't soon HAVE to miss a month.

Cheers, and thanks for this post!

Ian said...

Well said Geoff. I am preparing for my first ultra in a months time and I get caught up in this mentality of how much I am running daily/weekly. This post has so much information that I needed to read at this time in my training. Thank you for sharing.
Best of luck at UTMB!

Ian

GZ said...

Amen to this.

I was asked yesterday post Pikes by a first timer what the most important aspect of training was. I told them "consistency." Clearly it can be a conversation about uphills, downhills, altitude, speed, whatever. The first and most important thing is getting out there - A LOT. And to do that - be sure you do it in a way that you enjoy. Great stuff Geoff. Good luck at UTMB and maybe we can share a few strides when you get back to the Rockies.

DustyOldBook said...

That was a great read, thanks (: In March, 5 months ago, I brutally destroyed my ankle in a split second of being half asleep. I watched McDougall's TED video a few weeks after and since then my passion has been collecting every scrap of knowledge and wisdom I will need to be the best runner I can be. Though phyiso is going well, I still feel I am in no condition to run (with a severely overpronated ankle).

Like so many of your blog posts, interviews and videos; as well as those of Krupicka and Jurek, this post has once again served to cool me down and help reign in my emotions and passions which, due to my current inability, would only serve to hinder my present.


Thanks a million, God bless and all the best for UTMB!

Eric B said...

Thanks Geoff for the great insight. It really hits the spot. After a real active spring and early summer I've dialed back my miles the last month as I get ready for the Sawtooh 100 m run. I've been fighting the part of me that says "listen to your body" and the part that says "get more miles". So your post helps a lot.

Jacob Rydman said...

geoff, thanks for the words of wisdom. clearly whenever you share your passion, thoughts, experiences we all listen and become better runners and individuals because of it. would love to hear even more of your thoughts on running whenever you find the time, thanks man.

trailrutger said...

Great stuff, it was very inspirational for me.
I am training for my first ultra in march.
I already ran a 25 km trail 2 days ago.
It al seems to fit in, this post of yours and tony's post about hiking uphill.
Thanks a lot for this and the best of luck at UTMB.

Greets from the Netherlands,
Rutger

Agiofws said...

Geoff I could'nt agree more...
Its not ONLY about daily milage its also about learning to listen to your body... we aren't made up of the same DNA so each individual can take up a certain amount of milage per week/month/year. Usually following a training program, we tend to push our selfs over the limit and thats when we get injured...

Good luck on your UTMB race i'm looking forward to for the online results...

Simon said...

A brilliant post Geoff. So very true. I for one have found myself of late getting far too caught up in concentrating on what you call 'Short Term Consistency', and my body has definitely paid the price. I've just started a 3 week rest period before picking up again mid September and getting back to basics; escaping to wild places and running according to how I feel. Best of luck at UTMB from over here in the UK mate!

mi55ter said...

Thanks a lot, Geoff, now THAT post is really giving something back to the community. Who knows how many injuries you'll prevent and how much more fun you'll encourage with what you wrote there. As for me, it's really helped me to shape the whole picture, not just the numbers of an upcoming week or training cycle. God bless!

Stay Vertical said...

Geoff,
Completely agree. You see so many fast young runners get chewed up and spit out in 2-3 years, having never truly reached a career peak, because they were used up too soon. On a similar note, I am waiting for the next big breakthrough race- mindblowing course record- to come from someone following the Matt Carpenter Leadville plan. Skip the junk races and key on one hundred in a year.

Jim said...

I think this is true only if you know your body and understand it. If you aren't able yet to separate out the "just tired" from "over-training", you'll be doing yourself a disservice over the long haul.

Using ultra-running as the metaphor, taking a quick break or walking for a stretch will help you over the course of a long race. However, those breaks and walks add up if you're not smart. It comes with experience and knowing yourself. I think the only way to know yourself is to occasionally push too hard.

4 Winds said...

Makes loads of sense, Geoff! Don't feel quite as bad now about taking the best part of a month off running due to injury/cold!

Paul

Alex said...

great post and a good reminder

Mike Alfred said...

I have more or less come to this opinion over the last 3 years but I can't imagine explaining the concept so eloquently and succinctly in writing. Great post. I will be sending this one around.

Alyssa said...

I'm so glad I found this post! I just started training for my first 50 miler and it can be overwhelming trying to fit all those miles in around a full time job, grad school, and just life in general! I was very nervous about taking a week off from 50 miler training to recover from an upcoming marathon, and this post really makes me feel much more confident about that. I've been running consistently for maybe about two years now. I'm guessing my first 50 miler will be challenging, to say the least, with or without running that week!

forefoot said...

Makes a lot of sense to me. I agree with you, totally.

Brad said...

I started ultra running this year at the ripe old age of 54. I have participated in a 25 mile, 50k and 50 mile ultras and yes the 50 miler left me hammered! Your post is great because I ran a high mountain trail this weekend 25 miles 6700' elevation gain just for the fun of it and felt great. I am hoping that next year the 50 miler(s) I run won't be quite as hard as the first.

At my age I need to figure this out quickly. My goal has been finishing, and I have been pleased with my performance and my times. I started this because I love being in the mountains not because I want to race.

Great post, as it speaks to the roots of the reasons why you run.

Mick Tarry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mick Tarry said...

Thanks Geoff,

Fascinating reading. This provides much encouragement for those of us who are hoping to keep at this activity for years to come.

I have been doing longer runs ( 50-100km) for the past 4 years and without any running background before age 44, I have been delighted to find that I have been getting faster and less stiff with each event passing.

I have found though for me personally I do not have the discipline or ability to recognise and go and run/train when my body/mind tells me to. I have discovered an inner obsessive (whom I never knew existed!), who delights at crossing out each planned training run on my calendar in the weeks in between each event. I do have to have an event to aim for as I must be a goal oriented individual. Running without an event looming does not do it for me. As far as distance - I aim for 50 -120 km per week spread over 5 days per week and I personally think it is a blend of gradually acclimatising your body to greater distances in order to build your personal confidence about tackling ultras.