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

Thu, 11 Jul 2013 04:56:02 -0400

Tough Enough


(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the March 2011 issue.)

This was a tough crowd. I mean tough in the best sense of the word – of working hard and achieving much. These runners were already highly motivated and focused when they arrived at Dick Beardsley’s latest Marathon Training Camp in Minnesota, and they left even more so.

I’m not so tough. A pair of sports psychologists, Bruce Ogilvie and Thomas Tutko, once certified me as an “extremely tender-minded athlete.” This is the reason why I missed being all that I could have been as a runner.

But my reluctance to push too far, too fast, too often also could be the reason why I’m still running. What Ogilvie and Tutko’s tests label as “tender-mindedness,” I prefer to think of as a sense of pacing that has let me last for all this time.

At this Beardsley camp I didn’t urge the runners to hit the highest training mileage they could handle, but instead suggested the least they could get by with or would accept. This might not have been what they wanted to hear. But it’s what I needed to say on this occasion.

Two years earlier I had talked with another of the camp speakers, Rich Benyo. He was at work then on his memoirs and urged me to get busy on mine.

“We’re at the perfect age to write this type of book,” Rich said. “Old enough to have had lots of experiences, and still young enough to remember what they were.”

Now I’d finished those reflections. What had begun as a single book had grown into three. Looking back over this series, I see how much of it deals with training. I’m a training geek who has left no run unrecorded since 1959. This leaves a paper trail of what has worked best.

The very best practices are those that last the longest. My most enduring practice, a common thread reaching back almost to my start and still in play today, is runs of a half-hour to an hour most days.

That wasn’t all I did, or do now, or suggest that you try. You can’t race well without sometimes training long or fast, or both. And you can’t fully appreciate what’s easy if you never run hard. But while some hard training is essential, the easy runs make the hard work WORK.

What I talked about at the Beardsley camp, and repeat on this page, is what to do BETWEEN the big efforts – on the days that earn you no bragging rights, which is to say most days. Running is a rare sport where you can do your best only sparingly, and you need plenty of recovery time before trying to run that hard again.

My choice for the in-between runs always was, and still is, 30 to 60 minutes. Why this range? Because it’s easy but not too easy. A half-hour is just enough to make getting up and out the door seem worthwhile, and an hour is where running begins to feel like work that I wouldn’t want to do every day.

How often to run this easily? I yield to Jeff Galloway, whose camp I also attend each summer, for an answer here. His name is so closely tied to walk breaks that they’re often called “Gallowalks.” He’s also well known for asking runners to train full marathon distance or beyond before race day.

Jeff didn’t introduce me to run/walk, though he helped me refine my own practice. I’ve resisted his call to longer long runs, preferring to reserve my marathons for days when a medal and T-shirt come at the finish line. He influenced me the most on what to do between the long runs – on the easy days.

My earliest written advice on marathon training fell into line with other published advice (what little there was) in the 1970s. That was to increase average weekly mileage to more than 60.

This fit with a theory then in vogue, called “collapse point.” It held that runners would hit the wall at triple their average daily distance. Sixty miles divided by seven equals 8.6, times three is 25.8, which theoretically would delay a collapse until the last half-mile. Seventy miles would avoid it.

Jeff, who as an 1972 Olympian didn’t lack toughness, had a different idea for runners he was beginning to coach: remove the emphasis from weekly mileage and focus on the long run, while recovering well in between.

Quit counting weekly miles, he said. It’s the most misleading figure in this sport – encouraging too much running on days that should be easy, discouraging rest days that leave a big zero in the week and tiring us too much for the long run that counts the most.

I agreed absolutely with Jeff, because this was how I already trained myself – and soon recommended in my writings, and much later assigned as a coach. What does Jeff ask runners to do for recovery between their long runs? Total no more than two hours in two to four runs of 30 to 60 minutes. There again is that old favorite range of mine, quoted by time, not distance.

My training was never all easy, and still isn’t. In my best racing years I slipped in one or two hard days a week.

This wasn’t the toughest that training could be, but it was tough enough to take this “tender-minded” runner a fair ways. Tough enough in high school to net a handful of state track titles. Tough enough later to yield more than a dozen marathons that would have qualified for Boston under its toughest current standard. And it’s tough enough for me now, when the goal isn’t to race but to keep a run easy enough today to repeat it tomorrow, and the next day, and so on and on.

UPDATE: The three-book memoir series mentioned here began with Starting Lines, continued with Going Far and ended with Home Runs. The book Marathon Training details the blending of hard and easy, long and short, fast and slow runs.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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