Slow Down You Move Too Fast

Slow down, you move too gotta make the moment last...

After my perplexing performance and last training session for the Boston Marathon (I know I'm way to hard on myself,) I once again did the post mortem on my race and training and drew some conclusions; I was tired before the race. I felt overtrained, but at the same time, I felt I built up speed, hills and miles. So other than the course is notoriously tough, why did I hit “the wall” so hard around mile 20? I didn’t hit the wall in my previous race and hadn’t really felt that “beat up” since my first marathon.

For quite some time, I have been hearing about the virtues of heart rate based training as being the next step in becoming a serious distance runner. While I’ve been dedicated to logging 500-600 miles per marathon, following a training plan religiously, and continuing to improve my training, I have also felt my training has “hit the wall.”

The epiphany came with reports of a woman who came in first place in her age group at April’s Boston Marathon. She is in my running group (Runner's Edge of the Rockies) and modified her training by having a Vo2 Max and Body Composition study done by CU (University of Colorado) Sports Medicine in Denver and incorporating a heart rate based training program.

“The test is hard and uncomfortable. I decided to use this test as a new tool in my training and it really paid off. Since I got a 3rd last year in Boston, I was aiming for a first this year and I knew I could fall victim to over training. The biggest mistake is to run too fast on those long runs. When you throw away the pace and just train in your appropriate heart rate zone, you will gain huge benefits. Basically what happened is I was able to run faster at a lower heart rate by the time I went to Boston. I stuck with the 3:30 group and stayed right in my training HR zone...all the time. It was difficult to not take off with the faster people in my group but I knew what would happen on race day. I did one speed work session per week and kept the very hard work under 20 minutes total....this did not include warm up, cool down or recovery in between bouts. You are young so you can handle mileage and speed but rest and recovery is very important and I am the queen of long tapers. I have run Boston 12 times now so I know the course can really hand it to you. It is so strategic and the placement of hills, both up and down, presents a real challenge.”

I felt “guilty as charged” when she spoke about the “biggest mistake” of running too fast on long runs. Too often, my DailyMile workouts posted comments of “Fast recovery workout.” Sometimes the "truth hurts." While my 800M, 5K, and 10K times improved, I was running too fast too many days of the week. How often have you heard that your long run should be 45 seconds to a minute slower than your goal pace? How many of you run them too fast like I did? Guilty again…

So yesterday, I put my ego aside and paid a visit to the CU Sports Medicine Center with an appointment to see Dr. Iñigo San Millán, PhD for my Vo2Max and Body Composition test in the Exercise Physiology and Human Performance lab. Wow…that’s a mouthful…I’m not sure if I’m filming a Gatorade commercial, a guinea pig, or some kind of Dr. Seuss character with the apparatus they planned to hook up to me.

The first 30 minutes were taking in some basic information; weight, body fat (damn that guy who has the $1 candy box in our office,) and “what brought you here.” I explained the woman's success story (above) and how despite pushing myself hard in my last marathon training program, I felt drained and hit the wall big time in my last race. I sensed I was in the right place based on all the autographed Tour de France jerseys and other elite athlete paraphernalia in the office…wait it minute, what am I doing here?…I seemed to have stumbled into the elite athlete lab.

The next phase was the testing itself, strip down to the running gear and hop on the treadmill for a little warm-up. Essentially, there was 8-10 minutes of warm-up at a fairly slow pace, then he hooked up the polar heart rate monitor and Dr. Seuss Lorax looking thing to me for five minute increments starting out slow and ratcheting up each interval. Before turning up the speed each time, the good Dr. would pin prick my finger for a lactate blood sample (just a little pin prick…is there anyone at home, just nod if you can hear me…Pink Floyd interlude.)

I gotta say, there was nothing natural about having the Lorax tube hooked up to me, but eventually got into a rhythm as much as possible. Prior to the test, and based what times I’ve run my marathons, Dr. Millan mapped out the intervals to start at 6.5mph and finish at 9mph (under a 7 minute mile.) He asked at a 6:40 mile pace if I wanted to go again, and I plead “uncle” knowing that he likely had enough data at that point.

The final 30 minutes after a shower Dr. Millan walked me through the results. For as smart as he was, he did a phenomenal job of describing the topic in layman’s and runner’s terms in a very straightforward manner. I won’t begin to go into all the science and jargon. I’ll leave that to the expert(s.) Fundamentally, he described the various muscle types, how they’re trained and how athletes (distance runners, cyclists) convert glucose into lactate.

Lactate = acid = bad (the more lactate, the more your muscles say, why the hell are you doing this to me?)

He drilled down into my results and understood why I “hit the wall” so hard in Boston based on the chart that showed the correlation of my heart rate, mph to lactate production. Put another way, I disregarded coaches orders of recovery day or slow/cross train day and ran too fast. Put another way, there are tempo type muscles (trained at a lower heart rate) and sprint muscles (faster…at a much higher heart rate.) Testosterone got the better of me and I ran too many times too fast. Looking at my chart, he explained that with the right heart rate training, I will eventually even out the lactate curve (you want it somewhere around 1.0.)

I am now shopping for the appropriate heart rate monitor and likely waiting for the new Garmin 105 coming out in June 2010 (it’s the smallest yet with HR monitor, GPS, and correlating software.) Today, I improvised without the monitor and did dreadmill running at a modest 7 to 7.5 mph which should have placed me in a 130ish heart rate. I feel liberated like a golfer who finally figured out what was wrong with their swing. This will take weeks and months to slowly condition my muscles to handle speed without pain over 26.2 miles, but Dr. Millan was quite bullish on my ability to improve my time.

It was well worth taking the next step and will update as I progress with the heart rate approach. So if you see slow times posted on my DailyMile or Twitter, do me a favor and say, "Great job!, go slower!"


  1. Great write-up. I can't say enough good things about my Garmin 305. It's not the latest or the greatest, but I still think it's the best bang for your Garmin buck. Have you checked out Daniels' Running Formula? He spends a LOT of time on proper pace, ratio of fast to easy running, what to emphasize to achieve certain goals, etc. Dan the sports doc on Dailymile recommended it to me and it's a great book. There are links to both on Amazon from my blog (which pay me a cut if you buy them through there, full disclosure). Good luck with the training, and I'll happily cheer your slow runs on dailymile as I attempt to log some of my own! :)

  2. I love heart rate training. There are a lot of folks on DM reporting "recovery" workouts, and one look at their pace makes it clear that they had run too fast for recovery. Recovery workouts are uncomfortably slow when you're accustomed to running some fast paces. For beginners, it is often not even possible to run slow enough to keep the heart rate low enough to serve the recovery function.

    Sounds like you were running a lot at your lactate threshold and not doing enough aerobic base training. Having some instantaneous feedback about your heart rate, relative to your established max, wlll help you train more efficiently. It will be worth it over time.

    Instead of doing all your workouts int he gray area where you're going too fast to benefit your aerobic capacity, and too slow to push up your lactate threshold, you'll be able to target each with the appropriate amount and intensity of workouts and after awhile I think you'll see some results.

    Last year, I was pretty strict about heart rate training on the bike, and saw some nice improvements in my time trial speeds. In my running, I have not been as strict. It's too easy to get wrapped up in the competition with yourself or others and always push too hard.

    Your post has inspired me to revisit my heart rate training strategy, too.

  3. Great stuff! After a less than expected improvement on my time in my last race, I've come to this same conclusion. Time to book at an appointment for some test!

  4. Just got the results back from my own VO2 max & lactate tests. Initial feedback tells me I've actually been running slightly under my ideal intensity. More specifically, sounds like I won't be able to improve my aerobic fitness level much, but instead will be working to push up my lactate threshold so that I can run much faster for longer periods.

  5. Hey Ty - For a given week how many tempo runs and how man times are you planning speed training as part of you program?

  6. Dustin:

    Good question on how many tempo runs/speed work a week. My pattern is usually speed work or a tempo run on Tuesdays alternating week to week and picking up the mileage and pace as the program progresses for a given marathon. Before taper I ran (10) 800's one week and a 9 mile (three warm-up, five tempo, and one cooldown mile.)


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