Race to the Tower training – running slow to run fast and easy

In Barefoot running, Maffetone, Race to the Tower, Training by All This Running AroundLeave a Comment

You’ve seen them. If you’ve been outside much while the sun was out, you’ve definitely seen them. They carry a pained expression on their faces, as if each footstep is incrementally worse than the last. Nothing about their gait or demeanour suggests a person at ease with what they’re currently putting their bodies through. I am talking about the uncomfortable runner, the runner (or jogger if you prefer, I’m too old to care either way) who is determined to see this thing through, no matter how awful it is. I admire that, in a way. Nothing wrong with a bit of determination. But really, if you’re plodding along at 9, 10, 11 minutes miles and you’re still pulling a face? You’re not doing it right. Trust me – I was there for a long time.

Okay, that’s perhaps a bit gung ho. I’m a firm believer in finding your own way with things, and if something works for you then great. I believe in what I’m going to talk about here but it doesn’t mean I’m “right”, and it certainly doesn’t mean I should be considered an expert in anything. (Apart from Tekken 2, Depeche Mode and drinking Guinness.) But I’ve been doing this for a while and it’s worth sharing.

So, you want to do some running. Maybe you’ve entered a marathon, half marathon, whatever. Naturally, people enter these things for very different reasons, but there’s a huge chunk that really only do it because they want to get a bit fitter. They’re not desperately bothered about PBs or measuring and analysing each facet of data provided by their four hundred pound watch. These are the people I’m talking to here – people like me.

Let’s go back a few years. I was running fairly regularly, and a quick look on Strava shows me that I’d got quite quick. (Not quick in comparison to someone who can actually run really quickly, but quick in comparison to the fatter, more useless me of a year prior.) I was running 8 minute miles for 5 or 6 miles at a time, but here’s the thing: it was hard. It was a grind. I found myself, at times, literally gritting my teeth and thinking ‘I HATE THIS I HATE THIS I HATE THIS’. My runs were rarely, if ever enjoyable. I’ve no doubt that if I’d have carried on down that path much longer, I wouldn’t still be running now. So what changed?

A friend asked me if I’d heard of Phil Maffetone. The name rang a bell, he’d featured in one or two books I’d read about running. But I was otherwise ignorant. He lent me the latest Chris McDougall book, Natural Born Heroes, and pointed me towards a specific section. I was immediately hooked, as I usually am by anything that seems counter-intuitive.

I’m not going to break it all down here in detail, I’ll put some links at the bottom so you can read about it for yourself. But in a nutshell, Dr Phil Maffetone had invented something called the 180 Formula. It changed the way I run overnight. The 180 Formula is all about controlling your heart rate – getting it down to a level where your body can comfortably operate during exercise while (and this is crucial) burning fat. Think about it: all those runs where I’d been busting a gut to beat some arbitrary time or personal best: my heart rate (although I wasn’t measuring it) was going through the bloody roof. And that translates into pain and ‘I HATE THIS I HATE THIS I HATE THIS’.

I had to slow down. The 180 Formula works by determining your maximum aerobic training heart rate. Here it is:

  1. Subtract your age from 180.
  2. Modify this number by selecting among the following categories the one that best matches your fitness and health profile:

a)  If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.

b)  If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.

c)  If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems in (a) and (b), keep the number (180–age) the same.

d)  If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems in (a) and (b), and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

So for me, a) and b) don’t apply. My age is 43, so my maximum aerobic heart rate is 137bpm – although when I started this a couple of years ago, it was obviously 139.

I was eager to try it out, so I needed a heart rate monitor. I don’t like chest straps, so I bought a Fitbit Surge. Don’t ever buy a Fitbit Surge. I have moaned about them before and will do so again. But whatever, it’s what I started out with.

I set out on my first run. Bear in mind that I was used to moving about reasonably quickly, albeit having to push hard. Leaving the house, I took my usual route that starts with a small hill. Before I had even got onto the hill proper, my heart rate was way over 139, it was somewhere in the 150s. I’d run maybe two hundred metres in total. Dr Phil says that when this happens, you have to stop and walk until it comes back down within your maximum allowable heart rate. So I did. It came down, my heart rate shot up again. This was ridiculous. And it really was. That first mile took me almost 17 minutes. I walk faster than that.

I persevered with it over the next few runs, but there was precious little improvement. And in the end, I got fed up of my runs taking twice as long. I canned it for a while. But eventually I returned to the 180 Formula, and this time I stuck with it. Sure enough, I began to see some improvement. My 16 minute miles became 14 minute miles, still not quick but heading in the right direction. Fast forward to today and I’m running sub-9 minute miles with my average heart rate at or below 137bpm. And that means I’m comfortable, I’m not having to push, and I’m certainly thinking ‘I HATE THIS’. My runs have completely ceased to be something to get through, they are a pleasure. But I can still put the odd quicker run in as well. Today, I ran 5.5 miles at an average of 7m50sec per mile and it was fine. My heart rate was slightly higher (averaged 145) but not drastically. It was fine.

I’m so glad I explored this before signing up for my first ultra. I’ve no doubt that it will be testing and difficult, but it’s going to help me massively. I did a 19 mile run the other day with an average heart rate of 137bpm and averaged 9m13sec per mile – which is a good bit quicker than what I’m targetting for my ultra.

The other good thing about it is fat burning. Hooray for fat burning. I’ve still got plenty of it, but slightly less than I used to. Anyway, you can read all about it properly at the link below. If you’re fed up of feeling like every run is a battle, I would urge you to give it a go. Just don’t buy a Fitbit Surge! (Please, please don’t.)

Micah True, aka Caballo Blanco, the legendary ultra runner pictured at the top of the page said this:

“Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it efforthless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one – you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”