Old coaches who still run are a lot like old bush pilots who still fly. They’ve LIVED long enough to keep doing it because they’ve made good decisions along the way.
Over the last 40 years, endurance running has evolved into a mainstream activity, with mountain 50K’s now like the 80’s version of 10K fun runs around town. Distance desires keep increasing. At last check, there are over one hundred 100-mile races in the United States alone! 100 milers have morphed into 200+ mile races, and FKTs of gargantuan proportion filled the books in 2020. 300, 500, 1000 miles!
But how much should we dish out to the human body? As endurance athletes, we train ourselves to be adept at dealing with discomfort. After all, that IS one of the keys to becoming a better distance runner. Train and get the body to grow and adapt physiologically to run efficiently for further distances. But we all know that endurance running is a mental game, and many of us have trained our minds to push through incredible discomforts to complete our goals. How many of you have said something like: “It’s 90% mental at some point in the race”? We ALL have, of course.
But just because you’ve developed the ability to run through pain, run through blisters, run through bloody knees, run through vomiting, run through dehydration, run through twisted ankles, run through sore hips, run through destroyed quads – at what point do you respect your body enough to give it a break?
I’m not advocating the DNF as your out. Not by any means. The athletes I coach, even the elite of the elite, know that my expectation is for them to finish what they started, even if that means they won’t end up winning or breaking records. Finishing with the brutality of the mid-pack mortal runners is good sometimes.
But how many of these tortuous long endurance efforts do we have over our lifetime? Here are this Old Coach’s numbers:
100 mile races: No more than 1/year.
100K races: No more than 2/year.
50K races: Up to 4/year, depending on how many of the “biggies” above you do.
30K and under races: Every other month, again depending on the above.
200+ mile races: I’m not a fan.
“WHAT !!!!!!?” you say. And my athletes will be the first ones to point out: “Ya, but coach, you’re a hypocrite!” True enough. I’ve done, and I’ve coached athletes on more than one 100-miler in a year. I’ve run the Tahoe 200. I’ve let athletes do far more 100K / 50K combos in a year than I think is smart.
My point is this: I started running when I was 9 years old, back in 1976. I’m 53 now, and I still like jumping in a 50K race and scaring some youngsters. I still like to run down from Michigan Bluff to the bottom of El Dorado Canyon, spread some of my dad’s ashes, and run all the way back out. I still like to climb 11,000’ peaks in Idaho and try to stay ahead of my son on who’s got more. I still like to pack out a hind quarter of an elk in the fall or a load of shed antlers in the spring.
I have been fortunate that my knees are solid. My hips are good. Ankles tough. Genetics? Sure, some of it. But taking care not continually to torture the body is something that I preach and try to push on folks. My main goal as a coach isn’t to get you to set the new record at UTMB. Although that would be a very noteworthy accomplishment, I would much rather you enjoy running through your 20’s and 30’s and on into your 40’s and 50’s and 60’s and beyond, healthy and strong, smiling and happy.
The body only has so many 24-hour efforts in it. Only so many downhill bashings of the quads and knees. Only so many dig-deep efforts. Use them wisely. Spread them out. Just because you CAN push yourself to run through a mangled leg doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Remember that.
Teaching an endurance runner when to turn OFF the “I CAN’T BE BEAT” mental toughness switch is sometimes even tougher than the long process of developing the turning ON of the switch. Again, I’m not necessarily talking about what to do during a race, but instead how to turn it off when training and deciding on your plans for the year. Be smart. Be conservative. Spread out races. Don’t put back-to-back long races on the calendar. Using a 50K race for a lead-in to a longer race can work well, but you must know HOW to place it on the training calendar and what to do between them. The same goes for a 100K race in prep for a 100-miler.
Allocate adequate recovery times. For 50K and 100K races, I ask my athletes to take at least 2 weeks of true recovery time before we even START to come back with light training. For a 100-mile race, it’s three weeks. Now, that’s not ZERO effort during those weeks, but it is mentally and physically a break from training.
Don’t skimp on shoes! If you are a NASCAR racer, you won’t try and milk the entire season on a set of tires. Your shoes ARE your tires. Fancy yourself and replace your shoes often. Become a shoe nut. Find the ones that work, use and abuse them, and then get rid of them. How many miles? I can’t give you a number – how much do you weigh? How much technical are you running on? How much pavement-pounding is there in your routine? At the FIRST sign of question about your shoes – THEY ARE DONE! Get rid of them and buy a new pair if you go through six or seven pairs a year; congratulations! You’ve invested in yourself and your sport.
My dad, Bob Lind, M.D., was the long-time medical director for the WSER, a man who studied endurance athletes endearingly and someone who taught me a great deal about the sport. He would tell us, “You know, the human body is probably the most magical machine ever created. And if you take care of it, you can enjoy it for a long time.”
Remember- Old Coaches and Old Pilots.
He ran well into his 60’s. He also flew planes.
Endurance Coach and Athlete