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Seriously, run slower. Most folks decide to register for some kind of race, generally in the five to ten kilometer range, and hit the road haphazardly thinking that just any kind of running will yield results. For a lot of people, especially the couch to 5k folks, this will work well enough to allow them to stumble across the finish line and collapse in a heap of exhaustion. Not my idea of a good time. Ideally, you cross the finish line and still have enough in the tank to gracefully make your way over to the obligatory post-5K beers that have been calling your name since you crossed the starting line. The way to train for this may be counterintuitive for some: slow it down.

Let’s go over some basic info that we can all agree on because, well, science. There are 3 energy systems; ATP-PCr, glycolytic, and oxidative. The ATP-PCr, or phosphagen system, is responsible for activities lasting up to 12-15 seconds. Think of a barbell movement or anything that takes a whole lot of power, like 100 meter sprints. The glycolytic system takes care of stuff lasting from 15 seconds to about the 1:30 mark, which is more like a 400m sprint. Finally, the oxidative, or aerobic system, is anything beyond. Now, just because each of these systems has a primary responsibility doesn’t mean that we’re only using one at a time. At any given point they could all be chipping in a bit to fuel whatever activity we’re forcing our body to endure. We’ll dive more into the crossover of systems and how train that another time, but for now let’s just focus on one: the oxidative system. Like I said, the oxidative system is really anything beyond the 1:30 time frame, and since none of us are going to go bust out a 5K in a buck thirty or less we should be spending most of our time in that aerobic state. That’s how we improve. We challenge or stress the body in a way that drives a desired adaptation.

Because of this, no matter what we’re training for we want to try to keep it as specific as we can. Makes sense right? For example, if we’re training for a powerlifting meet, the squat, bench press, and deadlift have to be in there from time to time. We’ll throw some accessory lifts in there to help out as needed, but even the accessory lifts are chosen specifically to drive adaptations in the three main lifts. The same idea goes for running.

The desired adaptation in this case is lungs for days, so we want to be hanging out in that aerobic system the majority of the time. Most people probably agree with this in theory, but tend to mistake what that actually means in practice. Just simply heading out the door and busting out some miles does not necessarily mean you’re training in an aerobic state. Generally, folks train by quickly applying the old, “if it burns, it’s working mentality,” which tends to go a bit like this: “The faster I run the more I hurt; the more I hurt the, more productive my training session.” This does have its place, but shouldn’t necessarily make up the bulk of your training– because if your lungs are on fire and your heart is about to jump out of your chest, you’re most likely no longer in an aerobic state. You’re probably leaning more toward the glycolytic system we were talking about earlier.

So here’s my proposal, find your race pace. Now, let’s be realistic in this bit. Take a good long look in the mirror and assess your current capabilities. Whatever that pace is for you, I want you to back it off for your daily runs. You should be able to talk your way through a long training run. If you can do that, your most likely in an aerobic state and getting all the benefits out of the training session without all the extra suck. I’m always amazed at the amount of runners I bump into on the trails who are huffing and puffing that aren’t able to maintain a conversation as they plug away. If you can’t talk about the Super Bowl half way into your run, you need to reign it in. There are other ways to ensure you’re in an oxidative state such as heart rate, but I’ve found that if you can calmly talk to someone at length while running, you’re right where you need to be.

This will do a couple of things for you. For one, your engine will improve, and you’ll become more efficient in that oxidative state that you’re really looking for. If you’re training for a 5K, We don’t really care about your 800m “sprint” time, not at first anyway. Secondly, you’ll be able to maintain solid technique. If you read that sentence and thought, “Technique? Everyone can run,” we need to have a longer conversation. If you can maintain good running technique throughout each run, I promise you’ll feel like a million bucks and reduce the risk of injuries that plague most runners. This allows for a more consistent training schedule, and as we’ve all heard a million times before, consistency is key.

As I mentioned earlier, you may not be in the that aerobic state for the duration of a race and that’s okay. We can train for that too, but keep in mind that the majority of folks run their slow runs too fast and their fast runs too slow. So, pump the brakes and allow yourself to actually enjoy your run.

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