Long term vs short term

It’s been a while since I wrote something coachly on here, so I thought I would take inspiration from what is fast becoming my favourite running blog The Science of Running, written by Steve Magness, now an assistant coach at the Nike Oregon Project.

Two of Magness’ recent posts have a common theme. He wrote first about a study that attempted to discern when we might possibly see a sub-2hr marathon. Then, most recently, he wrote about a workout that Bekele did that was, well, absolutely ridiculous.

Without rehashing too much of Magness’ posts, I’ll get to his point. My interpretation of it is that he argues for a broad-based and step-by-step approach to program design and training. On it’s surface, this sounds obvious, but what does that mean in practice? Magness outlines 7 components of training that allowed Bekele to do that ridiculous workout, and of course, set world records and win Olympic medals. They should all be familiar to you:

1. Pure speed
2. Speed Endurance
3. Good structure/biomechanics
4. Endurance/Aerobic ability
5. Ability to recover within and after workout
6. Lactate dynamics
7. Altitude adaptation

(The last one maybe we don’t have the luxury of worrying about, although once you get to a certain level, if you are doing everything all the other top athletes in the world are doing, but they are doing it at altitude, they are probably going to beat you in an endurance event.)

So far we are in familiar territory. We could add other topics, but I suggest anything else can be catergorized as a sub-group to any of the above. For example nutrition falls under recovery, and weight training contributes to biomechanics and to speed.

A commenter to the blog, Robin Judice, made this interesting and true point: “Dogmaticism is dangerous in coaching. An open, analytic mind is much better for our athletes.” Where does this leave us then, with the 7 items we know we need to work on? Each coach has his or her specialty. We know there are coaches who approach things from the aerobic angle (more mileage is always the answer) and others from the anaerobic angle (more speed work is the call from them). Sure, it’s rare that a moderately successful distance coach will neglect any of the components completely, but who is self-aware enough to know his own tendencies, or admit her own weaknesses? How do we keep ourselves (as coaches) and athletes focused on the task at hand?

There is a correct way to train for distance running, and it does involve a base-phase, and it also involves running very fast intervals, eventually. In between, you do the in between stuff…What creates dogmatic thinking, in my opinion, is short-term success. So, if you start out with the idea that you’re going to do some big mileage, and after a few weeks, you do a little test and find, wow, look how much better the athlete’s gotten, well, I can see how a coach might want to stick with what works. On the other hand, if after a couple weeks of banging out intervals, a quick jump in performance is noted (and it likely will be), there is a tendency to think that if you keep doing the intervals, the performance will keep increasing.

The reality is that mileage without intervals leave the athlete under-developed and intervals without mileage leave the athlete unable to handle the intensity over the long-term.

Maybe the scenario I’ve described is not realistic. Maybe coaches are smarter than that. But without an approach that recognizes all the components of training, any kind of problem solving can fall short. The example Magness gives is one of trying to solve the problem of a high school runner who was always getting out-kicked. There are several possible solutions to this problem, but they fall into two categories: long-term fixes and short-term fixes. The temptation to short-term fix, especially with a short-term event horizon (next week’s race, conference/provincial championships) is great. The rationalization for short-term thinking usually comes from a dogmatic approach, or what an old professor of mine called a “doctrinal adhesion.”

To stay focused, you need to have a kind of telescope approach. See the long-term goal and then focus back in and see the short-term goal. That helps to shake off the doctrinal adhesions. Breakthroughs in running usually come as part of a threshold effect. You keep banging away, and then suddenly, boom, you drop a chunk off your time. How can you best stay focused on the long-term goal and take care of the short-term goals of getting all the different elements in?

As I said to the folks who were at the core session this morning, it’s all about attitude. The way to avoid leaning too far in one direction or another, I think, is to be as self-aware as possible, and to always try to pull something positive from each workout. So if you do a workout that’s just a little bit off (a couple seconds slow, didn’t finish all the intervals), remember that the sets and reps and times in an individual workout are fairly arbitrarily decided. What I mean is that there is nothing that says that 8x800m is more effective than 7x800m. Ok, probably 8 is better, as you are getting more stimulus, but it is not THAT much better. What the athlete and coach usually focus on is the interval of one, the difference between the two. What they are better off doing is saying, “ok, we just ran 7×800.” Take that positive. Next time, shoot for 8. Don’t get caught up in the numbers, but be aware that the numbers add up.

When you have a really good workout, and feel strong and confident, use that to your advantage, too. Take it as a sign that you can push yourself further next time. Don’t be satisfied with what you’ve done. Do a little bit more. If things aren’t going well, look at what you have done, and find something positive.

I suppose most of this is common sense. But, the cliché says, common sense is anything but! Also, after the election, it seems like there’s a bit of a disconnect between what people say they want, and the things they do that they think will help them get it. This was a bit of a ramble, but I hope you get where I’ve gone with it.