Houston Marathon training: Re-finding purpose & speed || David Roche interview

A perfect November day on rolling singletrack near Marshall Mesa, with views of the Green Mountain and Bear Peak.

Prior to my big races last year — Boston, Bighorn, and UTMB — I interviewed David Roche, who has coached me for 12+ months now. They were opportunities to discuss the rationale behind each training block and to reflect on the results they generated, with the hope of providing readers with some value. Read the interviews.

Five days out from my next race, the Houston Marathon, I give you another Roche interview. This one is different than the others, however, focusing less on workout dorkdom and more on the psychological component.

Q | In September 2017 I ran UTMB, an apex race in which I’d invested extraordinary time and energy. For a few months afterwards, and to a lesser degree still now, my running felt “lost.” After such a race, how do you manage athletes who are trying to re-find purpose?

Visit a dispensary and buy something nice, because this is going to get deep.

All runners have the same finish line: death. That sounds melodramatic, but it’s true, and it’s essential to thinking about “post-race blues.” Whether an athlete wins, loses, or DNF’s, nothing changes at the finish line — they realize it’s just another part of the life journey, a checkpoint at best. So getting there, especially after months and years of trials and tribulations, can be a let down.

It’s the mortality melodrama played out on a less consequential scale. For the athlete going through it, though, it can come with all the same emotions as coming to grips with the meaning of life itself. Does any of this even matter?

Our old approach was to wait it out, but now we try to question it out. We try to ask questions that will help the athlete find what they care about, what balances their lives, and the runner they want to become over time. Some of the questions center on feelings; the rest center on the “why.” As in, Why are we racing and training and living the way we do?

If we ask those questions early enough, a world-view can start to crystallize that is centered on process, not results. While results come and go like dust in the wind, process is forever. So before and after a race, we ask “Why?” so often that we sound like 5-year old kids, emphasizing answers that support a long-term love of running, independent of finish lines.

For you, I think the “Why?” has really become pure. You want to balance the things you care about (family, adventure, performance) in a sustainable way. This time, even before Houston, we’re talking about the next adventure, and how we can make top-level running a process you can sustain forever. With that crystal-clear “Why?”, all the rest falls into place, and post-race blues are viewed as just another part of the journey, rather than an existential crisis.

Finishing UTMB, an apex race that I’d been training for (directly or indirectly) for the 18 months prior

Q | Following UTMB, which was a major race in terms of both my racing calendar and effort (100+ miles, 30k vertical feet of climbing), what is your recommended recovery period and comeback?

Ultra recovery is like barbecue sauce — everyone has a similar approach, but the magic is in the individual variation.

So let’s start with the basic sauce. A general rule that I first heard from Pam Smith is one day of complete rest for every 10 miles raced. Coach Joe Uhan’s addendum is that it should be 1 day for every 10k for mountain races. Thus, a standard athlete might take 2.5 weeks completely off after UTMB.

Now, the spice comes in. If the athlete has a long aerobic history and has competed in lots of 100s, the time can be reduced a bit. If it’s the first 100, or if an athlete went deep into the well, it might be a month.

Finally, how does it all mix together? During that time off, low-level aerobic activity is great — hiking, light biking, and eventually some slow jogging, like twice your 5k pace. A good example is Cat Bradley after Western States on June 24. She didn’t run again until mid-July, but did swim and hike to jump-start her hormonal system.

On the return, after a few days of easy running, we have found it is key to start doing some short, fast hill strides (supplemented with weight-lifting for some athletes) to continue the hormonal rebound, which we often track using blood testing service, Inside Tracker.

After that, the athlete does the taste test. Are they ready? When they are, we start from the ground up, going through cycles of aerobic base and running economy development prior to any longer, harder efforts.

In total, the process usually takes 6 to 8 weeks to be back at full steam. It’s key not to take too much time off, though, since we have observed that there can be a major neuromuscular and fitness lag if an athlete hibernates entirely after a big ultra.

My training log after UTMB (big red circle). I resumed regular running on October 3, after a few weeks of hiking and a few light runs.

Q | In my case, it was 4 weeks total before I resumed regular running. That left us just 3.5 months until the Houston Marathon. Roughly, what were the training blocks, and how much time was dedicated to each?

One key principle of training is to start where you are. It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves based on past performance or what others are doing, but defining that start point is an individual exercise. The process of planning from there brings to mind the butterfly effect — initial conditions lead to eventual outcomes. We can control for most things, except perhaps the pesky butterfly flapping it’s wings and causing a hurricane.

To put it bluntly, instead of starting at 0, you started this block a bit in the red. UTMB plus 4 weeks with long backpacking trips led to both some residual fatigue (unlike more full rest) and a reduction in running economy. So we needed to recover on the fly. Or as Tom Petty sang, our training approach: “learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings.”

Your engine was still humming, but the chassis needed work. Thus, the phases broke down like this:

  • Aerobic base: just a few days. You had limited time and lots of aerobic work in your legs, so the full Lydiard-style base period would be overkill and possibly slow you down.
  • Economy phase A (vVO2 emphasis): ~1 month. We focused on strides and short intervals with shorter rest as we tried to improve running economy, primarily through neuromuscular adaptations.
  • Economy phase B (vLT emphasis): ~1 month. Layered on top of the strides and short intervals, we emphasized vLT, improving the pace you ran without tipping that lactate curve, while maximizing aerobic volume.
  • Specific phase (vAeT emphasis): ~1 month. Now, there was a heavy emphasis on easy running volume and time spent at marathon effort, targeting vAeT, improving the pace you ran while using fat as a primary fuel source.
  • Taper: ~2 weeks. Getting you fresh and focusing on slow-twitch muscle fiber recruitment to optimize fat burning on race day.

In practice, the phases mixed like a thick gumbo. In Houston, we feast!

The most difficult and one of the most important workouts of the cycle, a long run with 16 miles at MP. It falls into the “specific phase” category.

Q | You have described my Houston taper as “riding the wave,” versus the normal “sharpening taper.” Can you elaborate on that?

Tapers for any event are where the art and science meet, kind of like how Leonardo Da Vinci dissected cadavers to have a full understanding of anatomy when he painted the Sistene Chapel.

SWAP breaks tapers down into two general approaches, with dozens of variations in each. In a perfect world, every taper is just “sharpening.” Those involve athletes that go through an entire training cycle, from aerobic base to the specific phase, on or ahead of schedule. Volume peaks 4 to 6 weeks out, and the workouts become focused solely on making race effort feel easy. So race-day fitness is just month-out fitness plus some marginal gains from recovery and feel. It’s like sharpening an already sharp steak knife.

If the athlete is a bit behind in building and time is limited, harder workouts and steadily building volume at race effort continues to 10 to 14 days out in many instances. It’s riskier, since we are trying to absorb training stimuli until the last possible second (most studies indicate 10 to 14 days is how long it takes for aerobic adaptations to settle in, though it varies based on the person). If we hit it right, we can ride that cresting fitness wave until race day — and the performance is a breakthrough beyond what is predicted by training.

Q | In addition to the compressed schedule, we were also challenged by the unique demands of UTMB and Houston. UTMB is a 100-mile mountain ultra with huge vertical. Houston is an exceptionally flat road marathon. How can the body be quickly and effectively retrained for these differences? Under a more ideal scenario, how much time would you need for complete adaptation?

Fitness is a slow-turning ship. Turning the Titanic is not impossible, but it takes planning and time.

After UTMB or any long ultra, flat ground running economy will be poor at all effort levels except perhaps aerobic threshold, since the final part of the training block is solely based on transitioning from a speed framework to a power/climbing framework. The body will be loaded up with capillaries and slow-twitch muscles will be firing, but the top-end speed and sustained power output will be lacking.

So how can you avoid the iceberg of a slow marathon?

The key is working from the ground-up, first targeting the variables that are quickest to adapt, then targeting the longer-term aerobic development component.

The first priorities are:

  1. Increasing cardiac stroke output;
  2. Improving muscle strength, essentially enhancing power output with each stride; and,
  3. Neuromuscluar tuning, so that faster paces don’t make you feel like a placenta-covered baby gazelle.

In addition to raising flatter-ground easy volume, each variable responds to strides and hills that are short enough to avoid an anaerobic stimulus, which detracts from aerobic enzyme activity. These serve as plyometrics with lots of little forward jumps. By raising the speed ceiling, there is more room to play in the aerobic house.

Ideally, an athlete would spend at least 6 full weeks in that phase. After that, it’d be 6-8 more weeks in the economy phases (improving vVO2 and vLT) before hopping back into a race specific phase (vAeT for road marathons, strength for mountain 100s, a mix for for shorter ultras).

So in total, in a perfect world, 18-24 weeks. But perfect worlds are boring!

Q | It felt like the transition from Boston to Bighorn 100 (road marathon > ultra marathon) last spring was much easier than from UTMB to Houston (ultra marathon > road marathon). Wheres Boston seemed like an asset going into the summer, UTMB has felt like a liability going into Houston. Do you agree about the relative difficulties of transitioning, or was this just my experience?

Most definitely! It’s always easier to get slower than it is to get faster.

While that makes intuitive sense, part of it likely has to do with actual “strength” of muscles, rather than raw aerobic variables like VO2 max or lactate threshold. If each step is like a plyometric jump forward, with more power at faster paces, it may be difficult to get muscle fibers to deliver as much force as they once did at both aerobic and anaerobic efforts. The problem may be exacerbated by age, with peak strength potential decreasing slightly every year after age 25.

Sub-27 minute 10k runner Chris Solinsky has been attributed with the idea that he knew it was time to consider retirement when he had to do strides after every run to maintain his speed.

While that may be apocryphal, it’s a true sentiment. It gets harder and harder to run fast with age, just like it gets harder and harder to hit home runs with age. Add extra long-distance stimuli to the mix, and it may add some extra low-speed inertia to the system.

Trail running relies a lot more on endurance and aerobic threshold, which actually can improve with age and long-distance stressors. So going roads to trails is easy, the body wants to go in that direction. Going trails to roads is fighting physiological (and age-related) entropy. It can be done, and done well. It’s just harder.

At least one-third of my easy runs included striders, usually a handful for about 30 seconds with a full rest (about 90 seconds). They’re meant to improve or maintain speed, without significantly stressing the bodies between true workouts.

Q | To close, I’m going to ask a question that circles back to your first answer. I’m now almost 37 and I’ve been training hard for three consecutive years. I don’t feel like I’m learning as much as I once was, and I’ve run most of my “bucket list” races (and therefore struggle to find the stoke to maintain the intensity of training). How do you put a runner like me on a training and racing plan that is sustainable for the next 13 or 30 years, not just three?

As you are seeing, eventually the “results well” runs dry. Heck, the “experiences well” does too. The key is to understand why it is drying up and tap into a more renewable resource. Process is more like a flowing stream that keeps flowing by no matter how many buckets you take out.

Okay, that is hippie-dippie stuff, and I acknowledge that. But if the goal of running is to make check marks on the bucket list, eventually the list gets completed. And if the goal is to be an elite athlete, the realities of aging and injury will smack your love of running right across the face.

What process means in practice is finding the long-term purpose that guides the daily decisions you want to make. So, start with a simple question: “What do I want to do with my running in 5 years?” If the answer is “I don’t want to be running when I am 42,” then it’s probably wise not to be running now either.

Better answers are “I want to be the best runner I can at 42.” Or, even better, “I want to be training purposefully, because that daily grind brings me meaning and joy.” Or, “I want to move efficiently through the mountains, having transcendent experiences while minimizing sacrifices along the way.”

Make daily decisions that align with your long-term running goal.

For all three, I think the best answer is to find a training approach that best balances your perspectives on life, business, and adventures. In practice, that means:

  • Running fewer miles
  • Maintaining running economy through some focused work, and
  • Scratching your adventure itch.

You might sacrifice a few seconds now, but you’ll be giving yourself many, many years of happy running in the future.

In future years I suspect I will be doing more of this (guiding groups and backpacking solo) and probably less competitive racing.

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4 Responses to Houston Marathon training: Re-finding purpose & speed || David Roche interview

  1. Jakob January 10, 2018 at 6:53 pm #

    What odds do you give yourself for breaking 2:30 in Houston?

    • Andrew Skurka January 10, 2018 at 7:24 pm #

      Good question. David puts me at 2:29:XX based on training. We have an ideal forecast (high-30’s/low-40’s, sunny), so assuming that I don’t catch the flu during the flight or tweak an ankle during the next few days of easy running, I think it should happen. Normally I perform to expectations, and if things are going well something I get excited and do even better than that.

  2. Ben January 11, 2018 at 9:30 pm #

    Good luck. Really enjoy your interviews with Coach Roche.

  3. David Danylewich January 12, 2018 at 8:09 pm #

    David Roche’s philosophy around finding a different sustainable resource to keep one motivated is very astute I think. Definitely for someone like yourself entering the more complicated terrain of juggling family, career and a variety of interests. I’m 47 and thinking about how I can keep the motivation going for a variety of interests while keeping it doable, fun and balanced. This is key for the long run of life, no pun intended.

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