A Plan to Run a Fast 10K that Works Even for Aging Runners
by Jonathan Beverly
I never expected to be 34. It’s not that I planned to die young—I’d thought about old age. But the middle years surprised me, these thirtysomething years when I’m not sure if I’m looking forward or backward, if I’m on my way up or down. As a runner, I knew I wasn’t completely over the hill; a glance at any race-results listing revealed that I was in one of the most competitive age groups. And yet, I would get five extra minutes to qualify for next year’s Boston Marathon, and I could already start using WAVA age-graded tables on races under 5K.
At what age, I wondered, should I accept that my PRs are behind me? According to Bill Rodgers’ Lifetime Running Plan, I’d been losing aerobic capacity, lean body mass, fast-twitch muscles and flexibility since I was 30. Thanks, Bill. But I didn’t need him to tell me this; my results already had. Although I’d continued to improve in the marathon and half marathon, my 5K and 10K PRs dated from 1995. I also noted a change in my attitude—I didn’t have as much to prove every time out, and I felt more comfortable with the relaxed atmosphere of a longer race. But still, I hadn’t accomplished everything I thought I was capable of. So, with my 35th birthday looming, I decided it was time for action, while there was still time.
I set a goal, one that tied together my aspirations with my age: I would attempt to run under 35 minutes for the 10K before I turned 35. Sub-35 by 35. I chose the distance because it is short enough to challenge what speed I’ve still got but long enough to utilize the little wisdom I’ve acquired. My 10K PR also had consistently lagged behind other PRs, both shorter and longer. The fact revealed how difficult I found the 10K, but also gave me good reason to believe I could run faster than the 35:02 I had clocked four years ago—30 to 45 seconds faster according to equivalent time charts. I decided to be conservative. I’d be happy to set a PR, with the 35-minute barrier an added inspiration.
The mere act of setting a goal greatly increased my chances of success. By naming a goal I admitted its importance. I could not hide behind a screen of cynical indifference; could not say before each race, “I’m not sure what kind of shape I’m in—I’ll just see what I can do.”
George L. Parrott, professor of psychology at California State University-Sacramento and coach of the Buffalo Chips Running Club, advocates not only setting a goal but making it public. “Taking a public position puts a significant self-esteem component into the challenge,” he says. “It means this is not any more just about what you ‘hope,’ but also what others come to expect from you. This adds to your motivational energy when things get tough.” I figure that publishing my goal in a national running magazine qualifies as making it public.
Parrott emphasizes, however, that the goal must be realistically possible or it will become a self-created burden of defeat rather than a motivation to success. Of course, failure is always a possibility when you draw a line between it and success. This risk, small and insignificant though it be in the larger scheme of life, too often scares me away from making such a declaration. Yet a life without the threat of failure is also without the opportunity of success. I would take the risk. I was not yet ready to go gently into the moderation of middle age.
In the past, working for a goal meant simply working harder. But I have been finding that working harder doesn’t seem to work anymore—I just get more tired, catch serial colds, reacquaint myself with every old injury and discover new ones. To meet this goal I would have to work smarter rather than harder.
To start, I turned to two new books that promise exactly that: plans to train smarter and more effectively. Both books, Daniels’ Running Formula by Jack Daniels and Road Racing for Serious Runners by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas, draw training insights from research in human physiology and the experience of their authors, renowned athletes and coaches.
Both books stress the same theme: the need for planned, specific training aimed at improving body “systems” that enable us to run fast and long. Very briefly, these systems are muscle endurance, lactic-acid clearance (lactate-threshold), aerobic capacity and leg speed. All workouts should be aimed at improving one of these systems, working at a corresponding effort level. Running at paces between these levels is either too fast or too slow to maximize the benefit of the training, and doesn’t meet the objective “to obtain the optimal result with the least possible stress,” in Daniels’ words.
What are the training paces for each system? Technically, they correspond to a runner’s aerobic capacity and lactate threshold as measured in a laboratory. Not having access to or resources for such measurements, I used Daniels’ tables and worksheets to calculate my training paces. I found that they coincided with my race paces within one to two seconds per mile (see chart below). My estimates also agreed with Pfitzinger and Douglas’ suggestions for an “educated guess” of these paces.
A look at my stack of training logs (one of the advantages of age) revealed that on my unplanned easy days I often trained in the gap between endurance pace and lactate-threshold pace. I also did much of my speed training at a pace between aerobic-capacity and leg-speed pace—a particularly tempting sin when group intervals turn into races. According to the authors, the excess energy that I wasted overstressing myself during these workouts could be better used in another workout later in the week aimed at a different biomechanical system. It sounded smart to me.
With only minor differences, the authors agree on the best type of workout at each pace. Endurance is developed by doing steady long runs. I could lower my lactate threshold with either sustained runs of 20 to 30 minutes at LT pace or what Daniels calls cruise intervals: sets of 1,000 meters to 1.5 miles at LT pace with one- to two-minute breaks. Aerobic capacity is improved with intervals at 5K race pace—sets of 600 meters to 1 mile with controlled breaks equal in time to the speed interval. Finally, leg speed requires repeats of 400 meters or less with full recoveries in between. I could go to the track for these, but more interesting options are fartlek sessions on the road or trail, repeats up a short hill or 100-meter strideouts on any straightaway.
Having a good grasp of the workouts, I sat down to create a schedule leading to my goal race. Despite agreement on the physiology of the workouts and the general principle of designing phases of training, the authors were not unanimous on how and when each workout best fits into the program. Daniels warned me about picking and choosing from among programs, yet also states in his book, “Obviously, there is more than one approach to the number of phases of training that should make up a season, the length of each phase, the type of training that should be emphasized in each phase and the order in which the various types of training should be performed.” He suggests starting by planning the final phase, basing my choices on my individual strengths and preferences, then working back to the present.
So the books sent me back to my logs, armed with a set of workouts and the imperative to stress each system, focusing on aerobic capacity and lactate threshold as I prepare for a 10K. I laid out my schedule leading up to a goal race 10 weeks away. Twelve to 24 weeks would be better, but I find it hard to plan that far down the road these days. (Is this a sign of age?) The schedule assumes that you have been running consistently at least three to four days a week for a total of 25 to 35 miles, and doing so for a month before it begins. If you have more weeks before your goal race, you can extend each of the segments with similar workouts.
Following Daniels’ recommendation, I scheduled my lactate-threshold training during the last four weeks because I am strongest in these workouts and they give me confidence. Lactate threshold is also the area in which a runner like me, who has been at this for more than 20 years, can most likely see improvement, according to Pfitzinger and Douglas. Faster, leg-speed workouts fit at the beginning, which appropriately put the aerobic-capacity intervals at the heart of the program. Some runners prefer to reverse this cycle, moving from LT running to progressively faster paces in each phase. Daniels places LT running at the end, but isn’t adamant about it, concluding, “It is important to have a plan in which you have confidence, and to follow that plan.”
In addition to the speed sessions detailed in the schedule, I added a long run of 10 to 20 miles each week and several days of easy running. I’ve found the best way to keep the running easy enough is to find a training partner who normally runs slower than I do and with whom I enjoy spending time. I see our runs together as friendly visits and don’t measure them in any way. When I can’t meet a friend, I monitor myself closely and back off whenever I start to breathe even a little hard. Some swear by their heart rate monitors, but I have so far resisted that much quantification of my running—yet another sign of age, I suppose.
Two of the workouts vary from the “system” paces discussed above: the workouts labeled “10K goal pace.” In his training schedules, Daniels holds strictly to the four paces, calling training in the “no-man’s land” between these paces “quality junk.” Pfitzinger and Douglas, however, add 10K goal-pace intervals when they lay out a specific plan for the 10K. When questioned, Pfitzinger admitted that these workouts don’t fit squarely into the training schema. He maintained, however, “that race preparation for different distances requires some preparation at race pace”—falling back on the first rule of specificity: to prepare for an athletic event one must train specifically for that event.
For his part, Daniels says that “10K pace” isn’t descriptive enough and may or may not be beneficial or optimal given my current level of fitness. In the end, though, he allowed, “Actually, training at any pace is better than not running.”
Since my 10K goal pace fell almost exactly between my lactate-threshold and aerobic-capacity pace, I would never have trained specifically at goal pace if I’d stuck to the four system paces. I believe this is one reason a fast 10K had eluded me. I’d learned to be comfortable at LT pace for well over an hour and could hold on at aerobic capacity for the 15 to 20 minutes of a 5K.
But I’d never learned to relax for the 35 minutes needed at the undoubtedly uncomfortable, but sustainable, 10K pace. So I put the 10K goal-pace workouts in the schedule, along with at least one 10K tune-up race.
The most consistent pattern revealed by my logs was the types of workouts during the week immediately prior to my best race performances. I found that I inevitably ran well after a week of very little running but at least one high-intensity speed workout. Sometimes this had been unintentional—a trip or a heavy workweek had kept me away from running and I had shown up at the race wondering about my fitness, then run strong. Both Pfitzinger and Daniels agree on this general pattern of taper, leaving the specifics to the preferences of the individual. I had felt the best at a race when I had run 10 miles the day before, a hard track session early in the week and an easy seven-miler mid-week. I decided to copy this for my final week, reducing the run on the day before to race distance.
With a plan in place, I turned to race strategy. Data from past 10Ks revealed that my hard efforts followed a similar pattern. I tended to think of the 10K as short and fast, so I’d go out near 5K pace, end up falling off close to half-marathon pace after three miles and then try to salvage the effort with whatever kick I had left. Not the best strategy. Negative splits have worked well for me in marathons and half marathons, but I feared having to make up time in such a short distance.
Pfitzinger and Douglas recommend an even pace, saying, “the key to these races is to run good middle miles, when your mind has a tendency to drift.”
Daniels agrees, offering this advice: “During these races, the degree of discomfort doesn’t always get progressively worse throughout the race, and your job is to learn to deal with a consistent feeling of overall stress.”
Those times when I have done well at the distance, I have caught a taste of this—running at the red line for longer than feels possible, accepting the present level of discomfort and willfully ignoring the future.
Bringing together my goal, my plan and my strategy, the task became clear: Practice goal pace and learn the discipline to start no faster. Focus on the middle miles, drawing strength and confidence from each phase of my training. Let my legs take care of the finish. I scheduled my goal race two weeks before my birthday, giving me one extra week, just in case. The best laid plans of mice and men, you know.
Jonathan Beverly will be the new Editor of Running Times Magazine beginning in June, 2000.
|Weeks Out||Lactate Threshold||Aerobic Capacity||Leg Speed||Race||Miles|
|10||fartlek (800-1200m LT pickups)||35-40|
|9||7-8 x 400||35-40|
|8||10-13.1M race||fartlek (short pickups)||10-13.1M||35-40|
|7||7-8 x 400m hills||40-45|
|6||4 x 1M; 1 min. recovery||5K or 3M time trial||5K or time trial||40-45|
|5||6-7 x 800m||strides||45-55|
|4||10K tuneup race||5-6 x 1200m||10K||45-55|
|3||20-25 min tempo run||strides||45-55|
|2||6 x 1200m; 2 min recovery||3-4 x 1M (10K goal pace) + 4 x 200m||40-45|
|1||1M (LT pace) + 1M (10K goal pace) + 2 x 400m||goal 10K||25-35|