Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 11 May 2002 08:18:47 -0400

Let's Race


My next trip will take me to Alaska. While there I'll talk with a group I don't often visit, high school runners.

I don't know exactly what I'll say to them. Whatever it is, the message will stay simple.

That's not because they're too young to understand anything more complicated. It's because running isn't all that complicated. I learned that at high school age, then forgot it and had to relearn it in later years.

My first coach, Dean Roe, admitted that he didn't know the finer points of running training. But he knew very well the mindset of young runners, who run to compete.

He trained us FOR racing BY racing. He raced us often and always all-out, if not in true meets then against teammates in simulated races.

Mr. Roe had moved on to another school by my senior year. But he'd left his lessons with me.

My only addition to his simple racing-as-training plan was to fill the gaps between races with longer and slower runs for recovery and endurance-building. That senior track season I raced myself from bad to great shape quicker than ever before or after.

A case of the flu, then an injury (from a midrace fall) cost me most of the first month of the season. Mine didn't really start until late April, leaving just a month before high school track ended.

In my first race back, the state's best miler beat me by a full straightaway. Shocked at my slowness and sluggishness, I took a crash course in speed.

It started that very night with a double in the half-mile. Over the next three weeks I raced nine more times, usually at the shorter distance.

Results: Eighteen seconds of improvement in the mile and a 10-second PR in just a month... a win at the state meet over the boy who'd beaten me by 100 yards a few weeks before... a bonus state title in the half-mile... and the next week a "5K" (we actually ran three miles back then) PR that would never fall.

I credit this to the frequent and fast racing, with an assist from the relaxed recovery runs in between. Later I ran farther, faster, harder on more complicated programs -- but never better in a single month than May 1961.

The closest I came was the year 1968. Again the formula came down to the two basics: race-often-and-hard and run-longer-and-easier. I raced dozens of times that year and PRed in more than half those events.

Which brings me to the point of today's ramble: the disappearing-race syndrome. Some runners and their coaches treat racing as risky business, to be limited in high season and avoided in others.

High school runners train through some races at low effort to "save myself" for bigger ones. College runners skip the smaller meets to peak for a few big ones. Marathoners stop racing for months while training for a single race.

The penalties of going raceless are many: Runners feel less a part of the team when they don't race. They and their hometown fans don't see each other. And they miss what most motivates them to run at all.

Mainly, though, they miss the wonderful training effects of racing. Those benefits are almost magical.

A quote from George Young has stayed with me since I first copied it 30 years ago. He was about to make his fourth Olympic team in his third different event.

Young purposely raced often. "You talk of speedwork in terms of interval quarter-miles and all those things," he said at the time. "But you don't get the speedwork there that you get in a race."

You can't match the excitement, or the effort, any other way. The racing atmosphere brings out your very best in the current race and again in those that follow.

Please don't read this as an invitation to overrace. Racing four times a week surely is too much. But racing only four times a season is too little, especially for the young who run to race.

I now teach the young. When I ask the college students in my basic class what they want to accomplish there, three-fourths of them give a racing goal: to run a faster mile or enter a 5K race.

Students in my 5K training class all have some running experience. Most have raced before, many have competed on high school teams and a few have run in college. They all want to improve.

These runners began this spring's term with a simulated 5K race. Once a week we've run another thinly disguised race -- a shorter one to improve speed -- with longer and easier runs in between.

Result: In just one month 17 of 18 students dropped their 5K times, by an average of 80 seconds. In a few weeks they'll repeat this test. It's one final exam they look forward to taking, because they've done their homework and success is all but guaranteed.

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