Did you know that the only way to get a lot faster is to go slower? You have to train low intensity in order to perform high intensity. It's counter-intuitive, which is why people tend to top out really rapidly with distance running speed (and I would argue most skills in life). You see so few people improve year after year. And there are biological laws which govern this; so there is no "bucking the trend." It's a matter of immutable biochemistry.
In 1980 Mark Sisson had one of the top 5 American marathon times. After retiring and discontinuing training, he had a shocking improvement in his sustained running performance. He didn't know the terminology at the time. But what he had unwittingly done was "base" training. Exercise physiology has become a lot more sophisticated in the past 35 years. Thus, even laypeople can actually go and get a metabolic efficiency test performed to find their unique base, anaerobic threshold, VO2 max, and more.
Essentially, what most people do is go out and do something that is too hard. They then proceed to attempt outdoing that already-too-intense effort. Through pain tolerance, people will continue "progressing" for a while. However, what is actually happening is that you are increasingly getting INEFFICIENT and LESS fit. One day, you find that you can no longer muster the mental wherewithal to continue this fool's errand. And you quit.
Even in just the five long runs I did prior to this marathon, I noticed that even really proficient runners on the lakes are clueless about IMPROVEMENT. Everyone's face is just in pain. They are going too fast. They are out of breath. They are suffering. And, ironically, though most weigh 30 to 110 pounds less than me, my feet are silent and theirs are LOUD. People train hard. But they train dumb. Therefore, even if they are running faster than ever, they haven't actually improved athletic capacity. They just are more tolerant of pain.
I'm all for doing hard things. Callous the mind. Be tough. But just punishing yourself is the idiot's way of fitness. And the road is littered with failure. The only "successes" on that road are survival stories of sampling bias. No one kept getting better because of that tough-guy methodology. They survived IN SPITE of it.
There's a much better way. Go slow. Check the ego.
See. Here's the thing. There are energy systems which dictate how this will work. And we can't just toughen our minds past the biochemistry. The inarguable science is that an individual's maximal output ends at 15 seconds. The next-to maximal output ends at 45 seconds. After that, we are in aerobic energy systems, making aerobic enzymes, cleaving energy from fatty acids, ketones, lipids, breaking down adipocytes and stored fat. If you are going to do anything for 30 minutes, 2 hours, 10 hours, you are training precisely incorrectly if you are in pain. Pain is trying to take a max output past 15 seconds or a near-max past 45 seconds. BY DEFINITION, this is a physical impossibility. That's why most people's training is nonsense.
I've explained this to endurance athlete clients with varying outcomes. Most don't listen. They end up training at a non-sustainable intensity, vacillating between a speed that is just inside the 45 second lactate effort and a speed that is just outside of it into the aerobic effort. Those non-listeners get the same lack of results, because they are still failing to train at a low enough intensity to IMPROVE efficiency. They're still going into pain. And they hit a wall.
Many aspiring youth athletes also don't make good progress for the same reason. Their coaches are totally clueless about how biochemistry works and how to actually train for improvement. Less-conditioned youth athletes tend to stay deconditioned, because nobody seems to know that the only way they'll improve is if you STOP PUSHING them. They have to actually train even slower than they currently go in order to reduce stress, progress metabolic efficiency, and thereafter become a more advanced athlete. Technically, the least athletic youth sports participants actually train substantially harder than their more athletic peers. And this results in a reduction in their athleticism. In fact, in Spark, Dr. John J. Ratey's book on exercise and it's positive impact on brain function, he includes an example of this. The Naperville school district began to incorporate heart rate monitoring in their programs. One of the coaches had a reality check one day when he watched a girl in gym class come in dead last, even slowing down in the last stretch while everyone positively cheered her on to push. He felt disappointed. But then, when he checked the data, it turned out that that girl had actually held the highest average heart rate of ALL the students. And, during the period of time he had thought she was slowing down because she was perhaps "giving up," it turned out that she actually was pushing even harder, and her heart rate spiked higher than any of the other students had EVER taken their heart rates. She pushed harder than everyone, by A LOT.
More athletic youths are training so far underneath their pain thresholds and ability that their bodies can recover, adapt and become more efficient. Less athletic youths never train at an easy enough intensity to progress. Since no one knows this, we keep pushing the poor kids too hard, and they actually become LESS fit. Thus, there's a massive bifurcation that occurs over time, only reinforced by archaic beliefs about some kids being "gifted" or "genetically gifted." Actually, we just have to stop making less-conditioned youths train past their redlines; and they'd soon outperform their initially-more-athletic counterparts and peers.
For the very few who do listen, results are incredible. I have one client who HATED this. But he finally relented and religiously trained at 120bpm for 5 full months. At the end, he was so efficient that his sustained effort aerobic work produced more watts than his 5-month-previous sprints. Imagine that. Imagine if you could go harder and faster than your current sprint speed BUT that it were a relaxed pace for you.
So, you can either be very scientific and technical about this (get your zones tested, monitor heart rate and train exactly accordingly) or you can lightly monitor it or you can be a bit more intuitive. OR you can continue ineffectively training foolishly. I won't get into the high level testing. I recommend it if people are interested. It's nice to know. However, even Sisson skips this step with some elite athletes. He just has them keep heart rate under 120 or 130 beats. You NEVER go into pain. Over time your body becomes increasingly efficient. So you can go faster WHILE staying under 120 beats, meaning output increases as perceived exertion DECREASES. This is smart training. What happens with a lot of his athletes is that to stay under 120 beats, they have to keep 12-15 minute mile paces at the beginning. But as they religiously adhere to the heart rate directive, soon they are going 10 minute miles, STILL under 120bpm. He's now got some people running in the 6s. Think about that. Imagine running a 6 minute mile while feeling like most people feel when they're walking or sitting. This outcome CANNOT be achieved by training in pain, pushing it, or playing tough guy. You have to check the ego and work the process.
But then there's an even more intuitive way. Breathe exclusively through the nose and keep asking yourself, "can I keep this pace for 36 hours?" This is what I did. The first run I did 11 miles. I didn't really worry about pace except to go slow and be relaxed and unstressed. Then I did 14. Same thing. Then 20. Then 26. Then, I was aiming to do 30 and push pace a little to see what I'm capable of, but my hands started freezing at mile 17. For the marathon, I knew that I could complete it without issue IF I were to adhere to this ego check. In fact, I feel confident I could've completed an ultra-marathon in the same manner.
I did not train for this; so I did not get to benefit from the increased efficiency one would glean over long-term adherence. That said, I can imagine a novice utilizing this technique for 6-12 months and completing his or her first marathon in the sub-4 hour range. Yes. They will have to put in the time investment for this slow burn to gift them more efficiency. But it pays off. Advanced runners may not be able to check ego. However, for those who can, it's easily imaginable to get sub-3 if they rigorously play this out. It may take 12-24 months, since you do have a number of physiological adaptations which can't be expedited (and this will also be contingent on nutrition, to be discussed next). Maybe more importantly, because we humans are impatient, the biggest challenge to this is the paradigm-challenge: REDUCE training intensity in order to PROGRESS performance. It is at odds with conventional thinking. But the best things come to those who wait.
Stay tuned for Part 3...