Train slow, race slow? No.

When we don’t see the speed improvements we’re hoping for, we often hear the cliche “train slow, race slow.” The implication, of course, is that we didn’t train hard enough, that we should have done more lactate-burning tempo intervals and lung-busting speed sessions.

There may be situations in which more speedwork is appropriate, but it’s a dangerous idea, and it’s wrong.

Over the last seven months, as I’ve been getting ready for my first ironman, all of my training has been slow. All of it. Before that, during marathon training, I did one tempo run a week (intervals at medium speed, a bit slower than 10k-race pace). Even then, 95% of my training was slow.

All that slow training has led to significant speed gains.

Last August, I ran an olympic-distance triathlon in 2:35:00 to finish in the 42nd percentile of my age group (M30-34).

This April, I ran a much more competitive olympic-distance tri in 2:24:45 to finish in the 75th percentile of my age group.

Between the two events, I did maybe a dozen tempo runs. Everything else was slow, aerobic, heart rate zone 2 training.

Well, OK, but what about at shorter distances, where speed is king?

I don’t have a lot of comparison data points, but a few weeks ago, I ran a (not entirely flat) 5k in 19:38 to come in 3rd overall. That was the first time I’ve placed overall, ever. And I did it without doing any speedwork. Exactly zero of my training was at or above my 5k-race pace.

A couple months ago, I ran a 40:59 10k, which won my age group. Again, none of my training even approached my 10k-race pace.

A few weeks after my ironman, there’s a local sprint triathlon that I’m looking forward to. I did the same race last year, so it will make an excellent comparison. I have no doubt that I will have shaved minutes off my time by doing lots of long, slow training.

If I were focused on shorter distance events, I would include more tempo intervals and speedwork. I’m sure that would make my top-end speed gains greater. But it comes with significant risk.

High intensity training is glitzy. Everyone who keeps a public training log (mine is here) loves to post a flashy time on a training run or ride.

But susceptibility to injury goes up dramatically with high intensity work.

For years, I did all my training near lactate threshold, and for years, I was plagued by knee injuries.

In 2008, I trained haphazardly, all toward the top-end of my speed range, for the Bolder Boulder 10k (which, coincidentally, is running as I type this). I finished with a weak 50:49 because I had to stop and walk due to knee pain multiple times.

No matter what distance you’re training for, the heart of your training should be a solid base of aerobic, zone 2 work. It will make you faster, and it will keep you out there training, instead of on the sideline, icing an injury.

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Breakthrough swim workout!

I just swam my first sub-1:30 100 (1:26).

Even more exciting, all my sets (during my longest swim workout to date — 3,500 yards) were 5-10% faster than they usually are, at the same or even lower effort.

So what made the difference?

Form, of course.

My rhythm and balance in the water clicked in a whole new way yesterday. It came from the idea that the only pause in my stroke is during the extension, and that my recovery arm should nearly catch up with my extended arm.

Swimming is highly form-dependent. Swim fitness matters, but where cycling and running are primarily about power output and aerobic endurance, swimming is primarily about form. To swim efficiently, you have to get your body as close to horizontal as possible, so that the area of water you have to push through is as small as possible. Much like aerodynamics on the bike, except that water is 400-times denser than air, so it’s much more important.

I had been using my arms much like the crankarms of a bicycle: always opposite each other. As a result, I had one pause in my extended arm, and another pause at the back of my stroke, as my recovery arm was coming out of the water. That’s wrong…. it was throwing off my balance, putting my weight too far back and bringing my legs down and out of the slip-stream.

What made the change possible was a talk I watched a couple weeks ago. It’s Terry Laughlin, the founder of Total Immersion. Total Immersion is all about slowing down stroke rate. As evidence of how effective it is, Laughlin shows the final leg of the 4×100 relay at the Beijing Olympics. In it, Jason Lezak swims the final 50 yards a whopping 0.9 seconds faster than France’s Alain Bernard. And he does it taking 34 strokes to Bernard’s 46. That’s a huge difference! It’s also an absolutely awesome moment in sports. Check it out here… the final leg starts about 3:00 in. Listen to the commentators saying it can’t be done. This underwater shot really shows the difference in their strokes. Notice how Lezak (on our right) pauses in the extension, where Bernard just cycles his arms continuously. And that’s at an all-out sprint. For those of us trying to conserve energy for the bike and run, it’s even more important that our stroke look like Lezak’s.

I took a lot from that Laughlin video, and it’s well worth watching if you’re trying to become a better swimmer, but what really made the difference for me was his demo of his stroke pattern. At 25:20 (you’ll have to let the video load for a minute before you can scroll to the time), he’s talking about rhythm… notice how his recovery arm nearly catches up to the extended arm. For me, that was the key to improving my swimming economy and, as a result, speed.

Cheat River Festival 5K Race Report

My first overall podium finish!!!

I ran a 19:38 (6:20/mile) to finish 3rd overall.

I was hoping to run a little faster, but given the results, I can’t complain.

The race was great — really low key, but well organized. It was a good crowd, which isn’t surprising given the association with Cheat Fest. The t-shirts are awesome… one of the few race t-shirts I’ve gotten that I will actually wear. After race food was a nice spread of fruit and quality cookies. Awards were tasteful and unique. And at $20 including entrance to the festival and the festival t-shirt, it’s a heck of a deal.

I was hoping to run sub-19. Last spring, I ran a 20:08 5k on no training. Given the immense amount of work I’ve put in since then, I definitely thought I’d pick up more than 10 seconds/mile. Reasons I suspect I didn’t:

    • I did a 7 mile training run 15 hours before the race. This was a C-priority race, which meant I didn’t alter my training schedule at all to taper for the race. In retrospect, I could have at least done the run the day before in the AM, or maybe squeezed it in the previous day to give my legs a full day of rest before the race.
    • Sausage bolognese dinner the night before, late breakfast, and gel before start. My tummy felt pretty heavy during the race. Obviously the heavy meal the night before was foolish. I also need any meal of substance to be at least 3 hours before a race or workout, otherwise I feel heavy and sluggish, and 4 hours is better. The gel was just silly. I was worried about my muscles being glycogen-depleted from the run  the night before, but for a 5k, I can’t imagine the gel made any difference.
    • Lack of a whip. The picture above was taken in the first 500m of the race. The guy over my left shoulder, Zach, ended up winning the race with a time of 18:21. The second place finisher was ahead of me the whole race, and Zach passed me about half way through the race. For the whole backside of the course, I had at least a 30 second buffer on either side of me. I’m all about competing with myself, but I also really enjoy the competition with fellow athletes, and in a race, that competition can really drive you to push your pace higher than you otherwise could. With no possibility of gaining or losing a position, it was tough to find the motivation to really kick it into high gear, especially with heavy legs from the run the night before.

My award -- an acid mine drainage-dyed plate!

All that said, it was a good race, and I’m happy with my first-ever top-three finish.

Point of Departure

For my first post, I figure I ought to give a description of where I started and where I’m at now, on my way to Kona.

My racing history:

Triathlon: 2 olympic-distance races and 3 sprints.

Running: 1 50k, 1 marathon, 2 half-marathons, and a handful of 10k’s and 5k’s.

I’m not very fast, yet. My best olympic triathlon time is 2:24:xx, and I ran my one marathon in 3:55:xx. I did a 10k last month in 40:59 — that’s probably the time I’m most proud of.

I’ve been training seriously for less than a year. But let’s back up a little….

Ten years ago, I was a mess. I smoked a pack a day, was stoned as often than not, and drank a lot. I didn’t know how to cook and didn’t care what I ate. I dropped out of college several times before finishing and couldn’t hold a job.

When I graduated, I moved to California and quit smoking. Quitting smoking was the turning point in my life. I was always ashamed of smoking, so when I quit, it was huge for my self-esteem, and it opened up the possibility of being healthy. I started cooking and started paying attention to how what I ate affected how I felt. I also started jogging occasionally.

That was six years ago. Three years later, my sister and I decided to try a sprint triathlon. We did the Tri-the-Rim Triathlon in Durango, Colorado, and I in 1:20:xx. I was the last person out of the pool in my wave of 24 swimmers, and I walked much of the run. I also ran the Bolder Boulder 10k that year, in 50:49, also with some walking.

I then moved to Korea for a year, where I continued to occasionally jog. Until 2010, I did all my training at lactate threshold. It just never occurred to me to run at any other pace. My runs were always 20-30 minutes, and knee pain plagued me constantly.

In the spring of 2010, I signed up for a half-marathon… an all-downhill half marathon along Deckers Creek in Morgantown, West Virginia. I did one training run of 8 miles a week prior. I finished in 1:47:xx, wrecked.

The next day, Anne and I signed up for our first marathon. I also signed up for an olympic-distance tri that summer. I started to get more serious about organizing my training that year. I read training books and followed plans. My swimming went from not being able to swim more than 100 yards continuously to swimming a 24:xx mile in the olympic. I got a heart rate monitor and learned about training intensities, periodization, and fueling.

After the marathon in November and a 50k in December, I decided it was time to pull the trigger on the ironman. I signed up for Vineman because I could (it doesn’t sell out in 20 minutes), it’s relatively cheap (less than $200, vs. $600 for an Ironman-branded race), and because it’s in beautiful Sonoma, California.

That race is now 13 weeks away.

I’m currently at about 13 hours of training a week and will peak at 20 in early July.

My BMI is down from 15 to 13, and my weight is at 160 pounds. My knee is fine.

My legs feel like jello from my 4-hour ride yesterday, but I feel strong, and I feel confident.

I will finish the 140.6 in July, and I will qualify for Kona.

Eventually.