Best training advice ever

September 17, 2009

Sally Bergesen of Oiselle Running has been holding some fun “Free Shorts Friday” contests via her Twitter account, http://www.twitter.com/oisellerunning.

On the last weekend in August, the topic was, “What’s your favorite running mantra?” The winning phrase picked by Sally was “Trust the work” by trihardist, which is a good one, though I’m also partial to kellidiane‘s “Pass her! Pass her! Pass her!”

The following weekend, Sally asked for “the best running advice you ever got.” The winning tip was “Lose the watch!” as cited by marikoeggplant.

I haven’t entered these contests because I’m not currently in need of women’s running shorts. (Also, I’m probably ineligible, being married to a Oiselle employee.) I’ve enjoyed pondering the questions anyway.

While I’m not a major mantra man, I’ve found it useful to tell myself, “Wait ’til the second half” in 50-mile and 100K races. In other words, my short-term goal is to reach the halfway point feeling relatively fresh, even if that means running the first half more slowly than desired. Experience has shown that sticking rigidly to a specific pace (and/or a specific opponent) is just too risky for my taste. It leads sometimes to spectacular success but often to spectacular failure, which is hard for me to take.

As for the best running advice I’ve ever received… A bit of time travel is necessary for context. Return with me now to Rutland, Vermont in 1984 (or thereabout). I was eleven years old (or thereabout). I had already discovered that my only athletic talent lay in distance running, and I embarked on a self-designed program to develop that talent. I ran one mile as fast as possible every day. No warmup, no stretching, no excuses! After a couple of weeks, my times would stop improving, and I would get discouraged and quit for a while. Then I’d start over and put myself through a couple more weeks of daily solo racing.

After several of these running/quitting cycles, an important message was conveyed to me. I don’t know exactly where it came from — possibly the book Running the Lydiard Way or the magazine The Runner (soon to be absorbed by Runner’s World). In any case, the message was: HARD/EASY. Work hard to stimulate adaptation, then take it easy to permit recovery.

It seems like common sense now, but to my naive pre-teen self it was quite a revelation. What a relief that I didn’t have to push myself to the limit every single day!

As I said, I can’t recall the source of this insight, but it may have come indirectly from legendary University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman. In the book Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, Kenny Moore describes Bowerman as a fierce, early advocate of the hard/easy principle. “Take a primitive organism,” Bowerman would say. “Any weak, pitiful organism. Say a freshman. Make it lift, or jump or run. Let it rest. What happens? A little miracle. It gets a little better. It gets a little stronger or faster or more enduring. That’s all training is. Stress. Recover. Improve.”

As a young athlete desperate to improve, Moore was reluctant to embrace the concept of easy days, and did so only when Bowerman threatened him with expulsion from the Oregon team. For three weeks, Bowerman demanded absolute control of Moore’s running schedule, not allowing him so much as a single unsupervised mile. Moore’s description of what happened next is one of the most beautifully told stories in all of running lore:

On May 4, 1964 … my three weeks of tyranny were over and [Bowerman] sent me out to run the two-mile in a meet against Oregon State. He said to begin no faster than 4:30 for the first mile and not to chase after their animal, Dale Story, the NCAA cross-country champion, who ran barefoot and was thirty seconds better.

Stripping down, our filmy, Bowerman-designed racing shirts and shorts made me feel battle naked. My sharpened steel spikes sank into the cinders with a gnash that evoked Jim Bailey years before. On the starting line, Story’s shirt looked heavy, almost like wool. All of Bill’s care in preparing me hit home, and I gave myself over to his plan. I hit 4:30 for the first mile. Story ran 4:19 and led by seventy yards. Bowerman, on the infield, said, “He won’t hold it. See what you can do.”

I began to gain, and the crowd, Bowerman’s crowd, 10,000 strong, saw me coming and got up and called. With half a mile to go, I had no real will left. All control had passed to that thunder that would not let me slow. Into the last turn, Story still had ten yards. Then he looked back, his shoulders tightened, and I experienced for the first time the full savagery of my competitive heart.

I outkicked him by a second in 8:48.1, ripping twenty-seven seconds from my best, finishing in bedlam, crowd and teammates pressing the air out of me, shouting that everything was possible now, the Olympics were possible now.

Bowerman was there with wild blue eyes and a fiendish grin, and I knew what he would say. “See!” he’d crow. “I told you! You just needed rest!”

But he didn’t. He whispered in my ear as he had when he strangled me. “Even I didn’t think you could run that fast, Kenny,” he said. “Even I.”

Such is the power of hard/easy.


  1. I do so love Kenny Moore. What a sensitive soul. What a writer.Ran pretty well, too.

  2. Greg,I have posted your lovely essay on EphBlog.Since you linked it on Speak Up, I assumed you wouldn't mind.P.S. I was the author of the Varnedoe/Gopnik series. I am so glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Great blog! I love the story, very inspirational. I had to laugh at your bit about 50's, for me, if I do run one ever, will be about just finishing the thing at all (I am sure I won't be running it).

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