“Relentless Forward Progress” is a balanced, wise training manual

August 23, 2011

The creator of iRunFar.com says that you can run far too, and he has written a great book to help you on your way. In Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons, Bryon Powell manages to keep things simple without being overly simplistic. Perhaps most admirably, he imparts reasonable suggestions rather than inflexible dogma.

A good example of this thoughtful approach is Powell’s treatment of the “10 Percent Rule.” After defining it (“You increase your mileage by no more than 10 percent week-to-week”), he goes on to comment,

…You, too, should apply the 10 Percent Rule more as a guideline than as a commandment. That’s not a ticket to add 15 miles to your total mileage week after week. Instead, it’s a call to recognize the arbitrary nature of what constitutes a training week, the arbitrary nature of the rule being exactly 10 percent, and the increased irregularity of weekly mileage in ultramarathon training.

Similarly, Powell provides week-by-week schedules, as many how-to-train books do, but he also takes special care to explain how these may be adapted to individuals’ needs and lifestyles. For someone who has had success with a particular marathon training schedule and is now moving up to 50K’s, Powell suggests simply tweaking the familiar marathon schedule to emphasize the long runs more, reduce the frequency of speedwork, and keep the speedwork intervals relatively long.

People disagree as to whether speedwork is an important component of ultramarathon preparation, and Powell covers both sides of the issue through opposing essays by Ian Torrence and Geoff Roes. Many other “sidebars” by guest authors are also included throughout the book, providing additional perspectives without disrupting the book’s overall flow. Especially noteworthy are the foreword by Eric Grossman, which explains ultrarunning’s appeal in terms of its connections to ancient rituals, and the afterword by Meghan Hicks, which describes how 50K to 100-mile runners may find pleasure in ultra-related pursuits such as adventure runs, endurance snowshoeing, fastpacking, and stage races.

The overall tone of fairness and openmindedness does not prevent Powell from offering his personal opinions on various contentious issues. For example, he is not a fan of daily running streaks (“I feel there are times when it’s best to take a break from running”) or of rapid ascension to the 100-mile distance (“I question the need to either run a 100-miler as your first ultra or to progress through the 50K, 50-mile, and on to the 100-mile during your first season as an ultrarunner”). These views, judiciously stated, give the book a personal touch and a bit of humor (“Before race day, before to give your crew adequate instructions…. If you’re unlucky enough to be on my crew, it means an eight-page single-spaced document supplemented by individual briefings”).

My complaints about the book are fairly minor. While a few other ultra-related books are mentioned, some sort of annotated bibliography at the end would be helpful, especially for newbies wondering what else they could or should read. This bibliography and the text itself would do well to incorporate primary research literature, since investigators like Martin D. Hoffman of UC-Davis have conducted numerous studies of ultramarathoners. Finally, I found the book’s appendix (written by Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee) to be an overly evangelical look at barefoot running, in contrast to the evenhandedness of the rest of the book. The appendix says or implies that forefoot striking is more energetically economical than heel striking even with shoes on and that barefoot running is right for everyone regardless of his or her biomechanics, among other points. I remain skeptical.

These are minor quibbles, though. The book is organized well and devotes adequate space to all major topics (gear, nutrition, environmental challenges, race-day logistics, etc.) without getting bogged down in minutia beyond what rookies should know. If you’re new to ultras and want to learn from a book in addition to or instead of a coach, Relentless Forward Progress would an excellent choice.

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