I have finally reached the point where I no longer worry about re-injuring my calf/achilles. Last week I ran three hard workouts in seven days of running for a total of 60 miles. Over the last two days I have run up and down hills for just shy of 20 miles, abusing my quads and shins without a peep from my calf or achilles. I truly don't even think about my left calf (or was it the right?) any longer unless someone asks me about it.
Now that I can stop obsessing about that, I have turned to thinking about my decreased fitness level. I know how my fitness ebbs and flows around a marathon cycle--peaking for the event and then taking quite a while to return to a familiar level post marathon. But, the post-injury comeback is a new thing for me with plenty of opportunity to learn. While injured for six weeks, I had lots of time to think about my previous training regime. I've decided to try to change some of my "bad" training practices.
I think I've mentioned before that I tend to run my workouts on the hot side. As a result, I am embarrassed to admit, I have become accustomed to taking "water breaks" when necessary to maintain the intensity. I am quite aware that this is not right, but it's simply the way I've done things for the last 5 years. My measure of fitness has become less about how fast I'm going for how long and more about stringing together longer and longer workouts at a given pace without stopping for a break. These breaks are typically very short (10-20 seconds), but they give me a chance to catch my breath and get my heart rate down enough to sustain the higher intensity for the planned duration of the workout.
Acknowledging the wrongness of this approach, I have a hard time believing that it has had a major negative impact on my overall fitness level. I say this because, under this method, I have attained a level of fitness and run faster than I ever thought possible. Of course, one could question how much faster I might be running if I employed a break-free approach, but I don't find that kind of speculation very useful.
Where I think I have shortchanged myself is in the mental aspect of training and racing. When I get to the point in a training run where I'm pushing myself harder than I can sustain, I allow myself that 'out' to stop and walk. Granted, I haven't stopped to walk in a race in like three years, but I wonder how much better I'd be at handling the mid-to-late race urge to bail if I trained to complete my workouts without stopping.
I've decided to find out. In one of my first post-injury long runs a couple of weeks back, I had a 25-minute progression run that started at marathon effort and progressed down to 10k effort for the last few minutes. I ran this in 80-degree weather and into a headwind most of the way, but I didn't adjust my paces to compensate for the conditions (or my conditioning). I took about 4 short breaks during that progression run and progressed from 6:38 pace incrementally down to 6:03 pace. I would normally declare that I was improving if I did the workout at the same paces but stopped fewer times the next time I had it on my schedule.
I had a 30-minute progression run on my schedule a week later and decided I was not allowed to stop during the workout. I started out at about 6:40 pace again in 80-degree weather but without a headwind. I stepped my pace down by about 5 seconds/mile every 5 minutes and resisted the urge to progress any faster than that. I repeated the mantra "run what you can hold" throughout the run. As I dropped from 6:20 down to 6:15 pace, I started feeling that urge to stop, but I fought it. When my Garmin alerted me to change paces for the last 5 minutes, I thought I couldn't possibly go any faster. Somehow, I did and finished up at 6:08 pace. I completed this 14.5 mile workout with an hour of The Rock Circuit including strides.
Even though my paces in that workout were pretty slow compared to where I was 2 months ago, I was so damned pleased with myself for resisting the urge to take a break and holding the paces I did the week before. That's the great thing about running. You can always find some new way to test yourself and improve.
My focus now is on gauging effort and building my mental strength. I think I'll need this more than ever in the shorter distance races. I am quite familiar with how I feel in a marathon and what I can ask of my body and mind. The shorter stuff is an entirely different animal with a new set of pain and suffering to adapt to.
In my next blog: I have a new toy and it is guaranteed to make me a faster runner! What could it be?