In late November I signed up for a 4 mile New Year’s run in the town I was living in.
I hadn’t done a competitive run in several years, not since I’d been a college student with a secure place in suburbia.
I’ve been an endurance athlete since I was an 8th grader and over the years I’ve learned a few things about what works.
Growing up, I spent years on cross country and track teams putting in a high volume of training every week only to be drained on race days and burnt out by the end of the season.
Experience has taught me that it pays to be strategically lazy.
In preparation for this race, I went out running no more than 4 times a week, often less. I kept the distance pretty short for most workouts but pushed my limits with sprint intervals every time. I’ve learned the hard way that high mileage at a steady pace just wears you out while yielding relatively low returns.
I also had some weights to work with that I used about 2 times per week. I focused on intensity in order to get the most out of my time.
In between workout days I’d enjoy some cigars, sip some brandy, and go out for leisurely walks.
I never bothered to time myself or chart my progress.
Every two weeks or so I’d go out for 10+ miles. On one of these trips I went about 16 miles and loafed the whole way through breathing mostly through my nose. However, for these runs I’d wait until it had been 18-24 hours since my last meal.
These runs were about teaching my body to use its glycogen stores efficiently and to cope with sustained stress.
I barely worked out at all the week before race week, I was busy hanging out with someone I hadn’t seen for a long time. When he was gone, I went back to training with just a few more days to go before the race. I realized I had definitely gotten a bit out of shape and did what I could with the days I had left.
On new year’s I ended up finishing the 4 miles in about 25 minutes, around an average of 6:15 per mile. I was pretty pleased with the result. It was comparable to the pace I’d been running at when I was 8 years younger and putting in 10 times the effort. I was pleased because I realize I could have easily done better.
And this leads me straight to an older experiment in heterodox training.
Most endurance coaches discourage extensive weight training.
When weights are involved at all, it’s always low weight at high reps. But 8 years ago as a college sophomore I decided I wanted some muscles so I started hitting the gym, often right after cross country practice.
I normally would start out a season at about 6:35 pace on an 8k(5 mile) course and plateau around 6:15 pace. Even at a very small college I was pretty mediocre at the competitive level(Not sucking begins below 5:30 per mile). Yet even as I worked myself to death trying to run and lift at the same time, my race times started to plummet. I was constantly sore and exhausted but I kept getting new PRs. Finally, around mid-season, I broke 6 flats.
At the same time, I was benching more than my body weight and heavy squatting about twice my body weight.
It was soon after this point that exhaustion finally started to catch up with me. I had to choose.
I quit cross country and ceased to be a specialist. Ever since then, I’ve focused on reaping the benefits of multiple types of physical activity.
I’ve found that approaching the Pareto point in different types of exercise:
-Is easier, less time-consuming
-Causes much less wear and tear
Than trying to compete in just one.
I often wonder what I could accomplish if I had the rare combination of leisure and resources to pursue a serious program making use of everything I’ve learned.
But the real payoff, perhaps, is having an enjoyable hobby that doesn’t eat up tons of time and effort while keeping me in pretty decent physical condition.
Above all, my move away from the micro-specialist philosophy of sport was a formative experience in shaping the way I think about societies and nations.
In time, I was applying the same principles I used on my own body to much more massive bodies.