Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I just finished reading through "The Happiness Hypothesis" by Johnathan Haidt (book, website).  Quick overview:

The book basically looks at what it takes to be satisfied, to be happy with oneself and the life one leads.   The author melds philosophy with psychology, neuroscience, and other areas to develop a sort of overall view of what we as human beings need in order to live a satisfying life.

Seriously, it's actually worthwhile, and not as dull or dry as I probably make it out to be.

Anyway, I bring this book up because there is an entire section entitled "Finding Flow".   The basic idea is that there is a state of total immersion in a task from which a high level of satisfaction can be derived.  This state is called "flow" (or, in more colloquial terms, "being in the zone").

We all know this state; it is a point where the mind and body seem to be working in perfect harmony, where our actions seem effortless, smooth, fluid, seamless.   According to research done on the subject, this state is usually brought about when we engage in an activity or task that is challenging, but within the realm of our current capabilities.  Often the activity is physical in nature, but there is still a level of thought involved in it.   We become fully engaged in the activity at hand, physically and mentally, we receive feedback from our actions, and are able to capitalize on that feedback.

(For more detail on "flow", go here.)

I know I have experienced this in various activities, both at work and at play.   It truly is an awesome state of being, however short-lived it may be.   I most often experienced this state in races; the feeling of timelessness, of solid, almost laser-like focus on the task at hand, feeling the burning in the lungs and muscles, but in a detached sort of way.   And, more often than not, those situations would be my best races.

According to the research done on this subject, one of the key ingredients to attaining this state of flow on a more consistent basis is PRACTICE.   You have to go through lots of hours of non-flow working on the activity to attain those precious moments.   In other words, you gotta get out there and run.   But don't just randomly lay down miles; you need to have purpose to your running, you need to engage your mind.  In other words, one of the key points to work on is developing a stronger connection between your mind and your body.  Listen to it, pay attention to the language your muscles, your heart, your lungs, speak to you.  It's not just bursts of pain or periods of discomfort.  It's also satisfaction at being worked, put to use with a clear purpose and goal in mind.

Training shouldn't be simply about trying to put in enough volume to be physically prepared for a race.  It's about having a purpose, a goal, towards which you work; a higher ideal to strive for and pursue.   To develop your ability to find your state of flow, you need purpose, challenge, and confidence.   You have to put in the time developing your body and your mind.

And that's one of the most important aspects of training.   Having a purpose for your workout, and then spending that time developing the connections between the mind and body, the conscious and unconscious.   In order to develop these connections, this sense of purpose and confidence, you have to practice it, and you have to be consistent, and you have to work it every day.   Eventually you will get into a virtuous cycle, where your training feeds your goals, which will in turn feed your training, and every time you head out the door and down the street, you will have confidence in yourself, a sense of what you're doing and why, and then you will find that satisfaction that motivates us.

Friday, October 28, 2011


So, my buddy Jeff sent me this article, with the intention of getting me to write another post.

The article is focused on measurements and measuring.  As the article states, there are two ways of measuring: the "ontic", which relates to a scalar measurement (think of a ruler); and the "ontological", which relates to an experiential measuring.  It may be helpful to describe them as "quantitative" and "qualitative" measurements (despite the fact that these terms are not wholly accurate to what they are describing, I think most people will get the general gist of the distinction between the two types of measurements).

The article goes on to point out the fallacy that we, as a modern society, seem to have fallen into; everything is quantifiable, and by taking the time to quantify, categorize, and analyze our lives, our experiences, we can thus improve ourselves in meaningful ways.  This notion of quantifying and categorizing is illustrated by IQ.  We rank people by a quantity, a score on a test, and categorize them based on predictions related to that score.  However, how can this test really quantify intelligence?  What, exactly, is intelligence anyway?  What are the characteristics of intelligence?

I work in software development, and have spent a fair amount of time doing database development and design.  I have spent quite a bit of time contemplating the practical implications of data, of quantifying and categorizing and aggregating data, of scales and descriptors and attributes.  In software, we even have data about the data (called "meta-data", in case you were curious).  Developers need to have distinct rules, discrete types, quantifiable measurements; computer software doesn't work otherwise, because the computer can't think.  But we can.  And we can measure things in different ways.

And this is where the crossover from technology to ourselves becomes most important.  People want to categorize and quantify their lives, their experiences.  My day can become a series of tasks and minutes, tagged and logged and tucked away in a spreadsheet so that someone else can go over it to review my worth, my contributions.  Running becomes data to be analyzed later, a collection of facts that are disassociated from the actual act. 

But there is more to my day, there is more to running and training and racing.  If I want to be the best that I can be as a runner or developer, I need to embrace the experiences, measure those against a different scale.  To be a better person, I can't simply rely on collecting a timesheet; I need to be able to measure the quality of the work I do.  I need to use different scales, different measurements, to really get an idea of where I am, how I'm doing.

Think about it this way: Most of the time, I feel alright.  Not up, not down, nice and level.  Then something happens, and I feel different (happier, sadder, doesn't matter).  How can I measure this?  How do you quantify emotions?  You might be able to put it into a scale, but that scale is rather personal.  Your sense of measurement doesn't have a definitive, definable beginning and end.  You might be happier or sadder, but how do quantify the degree?

And that's where I think a lot of people break down in their approach to training.  Running and racing is not about the data, and it is definitely not a process that can be run through a Six Sigma type of approach to eliminate "defects".  You need those runs where you feel like hammered shit, or blow up completely and limp home.  That's how you learn what you can do.  And you can't really quantify that experience come race day; you gotta feel it, you gotta learn to walk the razor's edge and not get cut to ribbons.  Most of the time, you don't walk it perfectly.  But every so often you can pull it off, that beautiful execution.  And that feeling, that experience, is immeasurable.


I have spent some time on various message boards, and the same questions inevitably get asked time and again.  These questions/discussions are called "comets", because they come back repeatedly.

The one topic that I enjoy answering is something along the lines of "How do I go about training?"  I mean, the question is so innocent, and so vast in its potential.  Truly, a great question for a message board time-killing session.

In the interest of saving myself time, however (and to potentially draw people to this blog), I am going to discuss my thoughts on how you go about figuring out your training.

The most important thing is to have a good understanding of your goals.  Not just running goals, but your goals in life.  On top of that, you need to know what's most important to you.  Running doesn't have to be the end-all be-all (nor should it be, most likely).  But, by knowing what's important to you, you can decide how much you want to devote to running, and allow you to set realistic running goals and training.

 So, step one is to take some time and think, really THINK, about you and your goals.  Not just running goals, but all your goals.  We're not talking wants and desires, but actual goals.  According to Wikipedia, a goal "...is a desired result an animal or a system envisions, plans, and commits to achieve - a personal or organizational desired end-point in some sort of assumed development."  So that dream you have of retiring at age 30 or becoming a billionaire?  Yeah, that doesn't count, unless you actually commit to it.

 Once you know what your goals are, you need to prioritize them.  What do you feel is most important in your life?  If being a good parent or spouse is your top priority, then list it as such.  Work on down the list until you have them organized.

With list in hand, start looking at what you actually do with your time.  It helps to spend a week or so keeping notes of what you do, how long you spend doing it, even how it makes you feel.  For you data collectors, you'll love this.  For someone like myself, who struggles with remembering where I put my keys, this task can be daunting.  Go at your own pace, and don't get discouraged.  By tracking your tasks, you can get a real determination of how you spend your time and what you do on a regular basis. 

Finally, you compare what you actually do against what your stated, prioritized goals are.  Through this comparison, you can determine what tasks support what goals, what tasks don't support any of your goals, and also gives you insight into how you either help or hurt yourself.  If you find yourself spending a lot of time on tasks associated with a low priority goal, either you should reconsider its priority or you should reconsider how you spend that time.

At this point, you're sitting there wondering what this has to do with message board questions asking about how to train.  Well, the HOW of training is dictated by the WHY of training, and the WHEN ("when" in this case meaning the time you can devote to training), and finally the WHO.  Also, it helps you to determine if perhaps your goals for your running and training are inconsistent with the resources you have available.  If my goal is to run a sub-3 hour marathon, I need to be aware that there may be some serious training involved; if this goal is bottom of my list, I should consider setting this goal aside for the time being, or re-evaluating its importance in my life.

How you train for a race or goal is heavily influenced by how much time you can devote to the task of training.  The workouts you do, the miles you travel, the effort you put in, all of that comes down to your goal, and your resources.  My free time affects how I train; my body affects how I train; my mental and emotional state, my knowledge and experience, they all affect how I train.  If your goals are in harmony with the resources you can bring to bear, then you can work happily towards them.

Ultimately, the question isn't "How do I train", but more correctly "Why am I training in the first place".

Friday, September 30, 2011

My Philosophy of Running

Someone asked a fairly straightforward question:  How do I improve my run speed?
Great question, one that gets asked a lot, and so I wrote up a response.  For anyone looking for something that has workouts, or paces, or structure to follow, you will be sorely disappointed.  However, the following is pretty much how I see things when it comes to improving your running (whatever that might mean to you).

The best practice for improving your running speed is this:

Run lots, mostly easy, sometimes hard.

There are four keys to running:
- Frequency
- Consistency
- Volume
- Intensity

You need to run often to get better at running. It is just like any other skill that you are trying to improve; the more often you practice, the better your body and mind will develop the necessary adaptations to improve.

This is tied to frequency, but goes beyond just running as often as possible. You have to follow this pattern for a long time to really get to your best. In other words, there's a reason why most of the elite runners are in their 30s, and why the 30-50+ age groups can be some of the most competitive at a race. These are the people who have years of consistent running behind them.

In order to improve as a distance athlete, you need to improve your endurance. Endurance is developed by running many miles at a time. Volume can be measured in weeks, months, and years. There's a reason why the best runners, regardless of race distance, generally follow similar mileage amounts.

Simply put, intensity is how hard you run. There are various ways to measure intensity, namely Heart Rate (HR), Pace, and Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).

How These Keys Relate:

All of these keys work in conjunction with each other, so you need to be aware of the interplay between them all.

Volume and Intensity are the most conjoined, and often the hardest to really manage well, especially for someone starting out. In order to build your body's adaptations for running more miles, you need to give it time to recover. Recovery is affected by how hard and how long you run: the harder you run and the longer you run at that intensity, the longer it takes to fully recover from the effort, and the longer it takes to build those adaptations. Additionally, by putting too much stress on the body for extended periods of time without adequate periods of recovery and adaptation between them, your body will eventually break down; it simply cannot keep up with the repairs it needs to do.

So, that means that there are always going to be limits on how much and how hard you run. However, those limits are constantly moving, due to those adaptations. When starting out, a person may not be able to run 1 mile, but after a period of time, he can run that mile with no problem, and eventually even starts to run it faster. These are the adaptations at work.

Now, as with every other skill, there is only so much running "practice" the body can absorb at a time (which is basically the effects listed above). So, how to increase the rate of adaptation? By running shorter, easier runs at a high rate of frequency. By running lots of shorter runs at an easier effort, the recovery time is minimal, and can allow a person to get in more runs in a period of time because less time is spent trying to recover from previous efforts. By maintaining this pattern consistently over a period of months and years, the changes can be remarkable, and have been demonstrated on this site and others.

The Role of Specific Workouts:
The above does not address race-specific workouts that a person should do. There needs to be runs of varying lengths and intensities to fully realize one's ability at a given point in time. In other words, you shouldn't just run 2 miles at an easy pace and expect to run a sub-3 marathon. In order to really improve, additional workouts need to be integrated into the weeks and months to further develop specific adaptations to maximize race ability.

Putting it all together:
At this point, we are now talking about more training plan - specific topics, namely how one should mix things up in a given week or month. I will not give exact times, distances, efforts, or even a schedule; those things are entirely based on the individual.

In order to really improve, you need to run short, run long, run hard, and run easy. None of these types of workouts should be completely ignored, but they do need to be managed properly to allow the body to fully develop and adapt to the training. So, from this, here are some general rules of thumb:

- The longest run in a given period of time should not exceed approximately 1/3 of total miles within that period. This time period is best measured by going from long run to long run.

- The day after a harder effort should almost always be an easy effort.  The body needs time to recover, but you need to keep running, so be sure to make it light, and not too long.

- The only "junk miles" are those miles that are done with either no purpose, or are counter to the proposed purpose of the workout. In other words, if today should be an easy day, don't go out and turn it into a harder effort; you've counteracted the purpose of the workout.

- Be critically honest, and realistic, with yourself. The biggest offense people make is convincing themselves that a run was "easy", when the reality is that it was not. Some of this is due to lack of really understanding the body, but a big part of it is simply looking in the wrong place for the indicators, and not being realistic and honest about where they are in training and their fitness.

- You have to mix it up. Don't run the same pace or effort or heart rate all the time; at least once a week, go out and see how you feel and let things roll. Unleash the hidden runner inside, the one that craves the wind in the face and the feel of burning legs and lungs, the sensation of flying over the ground. The experience is fun, it's educational, and it provides a respite from the monotony of training.

- Focus on your body. Keep track of your breathing, and how you feel. You want to always try to run relaxed, feeling loose and fluid and smooth. Breathing is a good way to monitor effort; find a consistent pattern and try to stick with it for a while and see how you feel. If it's too hard, then ease back and find a new pattern. Listen to your feet and the sound they make. You want soft thuds, not loud slaps or scuffs or thuds. Focus on trying to have "quiet" feet. Learn the signals your body is sending out, like aches, pains, burning sensations, whatever. These are warning signs, and you need to know what they are, what they signify, and how to deal with them.

That's really all there is to it. Remember, this is running, not rocket science. Everyone is different, so exact workouts and effort levels and mixes of training won't work for all. There are few universal truths when it comes to training, and we are each an experiment of one. However, I do believe that there are some universal truths, and I have attempted to outline what I believe them to be.

Hope this helps.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


So, for whatever reason (probably due to some downtime at work...), I decided I would start my own blog.

Actually, part of the reason is that to comment on another blog, it made me go through some rigamarole where I had to set up an account, and I figured if I went through all that, I might as well make use of it, right?

Let the games begin....

To start, I'm going to link to guest posts I made on a friend's blog (because I loooove self-aggandizement; get used to it).  If you're bored, or want an idea of what to expect, read these:

How To Run Like a Stoic
Fear And Running
Intelligent Training