Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tear down, build up, adapt

"Exercise sweat has no odor. Only nervous sweat has odor...there must be a lot of nervous runners" - George Sheehan

During the early spring, due to rotten ankle anatomy, I found it increasingly difficult to keep up with my TNT groups - "I am their leader...which way did they go?". So, after 15 years, I decided to turn over all of the Run portion of TNT to Coach Prince Whatley. Up until then, I had been writing a weekly email to my trainees for over 11 years that pretty much centered around coaching them along their travels. Now that I don't have a "group", I went the Blog route to sort of diversify my writings and allow my thoughts to wander where they will concerning my running journeys past, present and future. However, as I write RWA, I still find myself periodically slipping into the coaching persona, and will base these pearls of wisdom on marathons and ultras that I know folks here in the Birmingham area are running. So, I'm probably writing this prelude more for me than for you because I just don't know exactly what will come out of my typing fingers each week. As like a trail run with poor markings, there's a lot of different ways I can go.

So, here in Birmingham, our signature event is the Mercedes Marathon and Half Marathon in February. When we begin our new Mercedes Marathon groups (Sept 19th, in case you forgot), I will be going over some of the fundamentals of beginning a training program. Review is ALWAYS a good thing, so although you might say "I've seen this before", hang in there, it's worth hearing over and over again. Heck, Runner's World has been getting away with this for 40 years. But, running long distances is not Rocket Surgery! It's really pretty simple as long as some well meaning blogger doesn't muck it up, so I'll do my best.

Believe it or not, I think our summer groups (San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and a few other fall marathons) are emerging from the depths of summer training. I know it's still hot out there, but September is next week, so it's got to be cooling off soon, then things will get easier. We finally broke our streak of consectutive days over 90 degrees at 50 days in a row!! Even the little humidity break we've had this week has made moving forward a whole lot more tolerable. All of you that have been putting in consistent training are going to reap big dividends soon. And consistent training doesn't mean getting out EVERY day and running hard, or far. It means being consistent with regular running, or cross training, enough to produce some stress to your aerobic system, so that it adapts to producing energy upon demand. Stress + rest = adaptation. Tear down, build up, adapt. Call it what you want, but it is this combination of workout stress and rest that results in improvement. But, most athletes positively fear resting. Rest days, rest weeks, resting before fear it all!! And I'm with you on this one. And I've been doing this for three DECADES!! Believe me, you won't suddenly lose all your hard earned training in a day or two. Studies have shown that there is NO LOSS in performance or conditioning for up to two months if training is cut 50%! Studies also show that a 60-70% reduction in training over a two week period will result in a 3.5-3.7% improvement in performance. Can you say TAPER? That can be an 8 minute improvement in a four hour marathon! OK, so where does this fit in to your training? Well, it's 7 weeks until San Francisco and 6 weeks till Chicago. Next week, Coach Prince's schedule has 17 miles, then it's down to 13 the following week. Ease back a little after the 17 miler during the 2 weeks prior to your 20 miler (Sept 18th). The weather will be getting cooler, your midweek mileage is lower, your body has adapted to the hell you put it through this summer, and you'll cruise into the 20 miler fit, strong, and ready. THEN, it's on to the taper with a positive "Hey, I CAN do this!" attitude. Like they used to say on the "A-Team" - I love when a plan comes together!!

OK guys, time to get Saturday moving two hours, write RWA, watch a little English soccer while drinking my coffee. It's 10:30 already. Where does the day go? Think I'll have another cup of coffee and think about it. Have a good week and I'll see you on the gradually cooler roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Looking back...looking ahead

Hi guys - Many, many years ago, when I was in High school, baseball was my game. I loved watching it, but more loved playing it. Unfortuneately, my coach, Coach Hulsey, who as far as I was concerned had a much higher aptitude as a hockey coach, had a differing opinion as to my baseball abilities. Whereas I felt I had talents that could greatly enhance the sorry state of our team, he felt that as a baseball player, I should stick with soccer. So, here I was, in my Senior year, having been cut from the River Dell HS team THREE years in a row (9th - 11th grade), and nothing to show for it. I was somewhat on the soccer squad, but never played enough to earn a school letter, so this letter became an obcession, but Spring of my Senior year put a finish-line pressure on me to earn this elusive symbol of athletic prowess. Enter the track team. Now, you have to realize, I HATED running of all sorts, and to have this be the main object of the sport was totally incomprehensible to me. But, priorites were to be put in order and my teen, peer-presured mind said cut bait & fish or shut-up. I began the season running the 440 (just to give you a tip on my age - there was no 400 yet!) which was hell-on-earth because essentially the 440 was a SPRINT around the whole daggum track. I mean, take the 100 yd dash, go as hard as you can, and then keep it up all the way around. The turn towards home is a feeling in your legs that cannot be described, but it's something like bands of steel surrounding muscles that have gone empty and you only have 100 yards to go. After doing that nonsense for half the season, Coach Babbitt, suggested that (now get this!), I move UP to the 880!!! Had Coach Babbitt lost his mind? As oppossed to Baseball Coach Hulsey, I actually felt like Coach Babbit knew what he was doing. This was 1965, and he was the ONLY person I knew that actually had run the Boston Marathon! Picture the impression this had on a sore legged teenager who thought the MILE runners were endurance athletes. So, I reluctantly moved up to the 880, and found that here, you could actually pace yourself to where you might actually have a "kick" at the end. I could slip in behind the first three or four guys, try to hold on, and usually stagger into a finish in the top 6 or 7. Ok, not exactly a success story, but I found that running was not totally terrible. I did get that letter, gave it on a sweater to some girl, and when we broke up, I asked for the sweater back even before I rememebered she also had my school ring (I got that back too).

This is not meant to be "The History of Al", or how I fell in love with running. Actually, I gave it up for 13 years after High School and only tried it again when I was getting as big as a double-wide. But, I often look back at all the small things that happen that completely change your life, and while visiting my family and grandson in Boston this weekend, I was running in a light rain on Heartbreak Hill on the Boston Marathon course and of all things, Coach Babbitt came to mind. I remember how impressed I was 45 years ago (Yikes! - 45 years!!) to know he had run on this same, famous bump in the road, and what he would say to know I've actually raced Boston 5 times! Heck, he might have moved me up to run the mile if he knew I could do that! I also thought about how lucky I am in so many facets of my life. My competitive running days may be over and my long distances seem to be getting shorter, but with running, I can still "lace 'em up", hit the road, and have the time of my life. My mind wanders all over the place while I'm running, and because of that, once again I say, Thank God I'm a Runner. What other sport can you let your mind wander while you actually do the activity?

So,once again, Coach Al's Chronicles have come from high above the clouds as I fly home (I love my Netbook). I had a great time with my Boston visit, and seeing our grandson grow up is an unexplainable joy. However, as he grows, I see that Grandpa is going to have to stay in shape to keep up. I never liked intervals, but Adam demands constant push, pull, lift, throw, carry, swing, etc, interspersed with periodic rest breaks. Perfect. My fitness was getting a little lax, so, my idea of "Grandpa Bootcamp", may be of mutual benefit.

From somewhere above North Carolina, I hope you all have a good week and I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Friday, August 20, 2010


"I admire runners older than I - they are now my heroes. I want to be like them as I grow older." - Frank Shorter

Hi guys - Reading that quote above - the way I'm running lately, I must be like a God to Frank Shorter!! Watch out what you wish for, Frank.

Once again, I'm winging my way northward to see my son Michael, daughter-in-law Joanie, and Grandson, Adam. When Adam was born 10 months ago, my wife, Wendy, and I decided to spend our son's inheritance on roundtrips flying to Boston every two months. So, this week's RWA comes to you from 35,000 feet! Whoa, and I thought 7000 feet of New Mexico was high.

Whether you're training for San Francisco, Chicago, New York, or any other fall marathon, you might want to take a quick look at the calendar - IT'S GETTING CLOSER!!! Seven weeks (Chicago) goes by pretty quickly, especially when the last three weeks are a taper. Some quick New Jersey math tells me that leaves only 4 more intense weeks of training. Now, if you're going to Tupelo, well, then looking at the calendar might give you quite a start as that's only 2 weeks away!! Training for the marathon is not Rocket Science folks, but it's not a "fall-out-of-the-bed-and-decide-to-race" thing either. Many of you will be diving into the marathon world for the first time and as with anything else, it's probably best to follow the road paved by previous divers. The schedule I put out is one of a 100 different ones you can find, all of them with their merits and criticisms. Several times in the past mine was said to not have enough 20 milers, not being specific enough about speed or not telling you how much to do each day. I aim my schedule totally towards the first timer and is based on putting miles in your legs, but can be modified any way you want. I don't think a new runner needs to get too hung up on tempo runs, intervals, or even a bunch of hill training. Put miles in your legs to build endurance, because without that foundation, your house-of-cards training program will come crashing down. If you'd like a copy, drop me an email and I'll gladly send it (

Being consistent with the training and knowing when to cut back to allow a little rest are by far the two most important aspects of training. I have always felt that the most important distances to do in training are in the 13-17 mile range. This will get most runners in the two and a half hour range. The 20 miler is mostly a dress rehearsal test, and most of the benefit is more psychological than physical. In doing 13-17 miles, you teach your body how to spare the stored and ingested carbohydrates, and how to burn fat much more efficiently, without beating yourself up. When you do your first 20 miler, you will cry "How will I ever go another 6?" Trust me, I wouldn't leave you unprepared to get to the finish. If you're training for a fall marathon (or half), from here on out, every run you do, whether it's 20 miles or 5 miles, you should be picturing in your mind that the marathon will feel like this. Try to picture yourself IN the race itself. Visualization teaches your mind what to expect long before you toe the starting line. The topic of visualization will be blog all by itself, but for now, just know that all this physical AND mental training will NOT make running a marathon easy, but it will make it easier (physical) and it will prepare you how to accept all the potential obstacles the marathon will throw at you (mental). If you don't try anything new on race day (ah, there's the rub), you're there. I'm not saying things won't go wrong, but when they do, it'll frustrate you, but not catch you from left field, and through your training, you'll handle it. Last week, I got caught in a thunderstorm, and it poured on poor little me, but somewhere down deep, I learned a little more about how I respond to a hard rain. Ok, I acted like a little girl when it thundered, but that's another issue. If you have a bad run, get through it and try to figure it out later. When you go into a tailspin, you're in survival mode, and you have to salvage your run somehow. Do you pick up the pace? I don't think so! Drink more? Now you're on the right track! Get some sugar in your system? The track just got righter! Try to run/walk? If you can, great! Run fast and try to get back up to your original pace? Good luck! The point is all the aspects of training will get you to the start line, but more importantly, don't treat training like it has no flexibility. The final few weeks of training before the marathon is the culmination of all the training you have done previously. I took a cooking class once, and the instructor was teaching us how to make risotto. Everyone, including me, was trying to watch his every move and measurement so we could duplicate his delicacy. The best thing I took away from that class was that by the end of it, that instructor had imprinted into our mind "Don't memorize the recipe, learn the technique!". Don't get hung up in the specifics of training - learn the principles. If you don't like Gatorade, learn that it's not the gatorade that's the key, it's the carbohydrates from the sugar. So figure out another way to get that sugar - gel, sports beans, candy. If you can't drink a lot at each aid station, learn that it's not that you have to drink a lot at once, but you have to drink, so carry a bottle or water belt and sip along the way. Learn the technique - why you do things, and then individualize.
Man, sorta feel like I've weaved all over with this week's posting, but as you know, once a week, I sit in front of the computer and type whatever comes out (thank God for the delete key!).

For those of you thinking of training for the Mercedes full or half marathon in February, I will drop some schedules off at the Homewood Trak Shak this week and we'll get them posted on the Mercedes site soon (I hope). Anyway, training begins September 19th at Brownell at 6:30am. No, you don't have to sign up. There's no fee and it's well worth the price. You won't get a training shirt, and nobody will hold your hand. But, Ken Harkless and I will answer all your questions, and provide a person each week to say "go". I'll have maps on line before the first week, put out coolers, but if you have any burning questions, email me.

Now, it's about time for "wheels down", so it's close to go into Grandpa mode. I swear, the only word Adam can say is "Grandpa", but everybody else says it's just a curdling scream. What do they know? Be back Tuesday and I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Heat & Hills...I'll wear 'em out

"One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time." - Andre Gide

Hi guys - When my dad was in the Army, he was also a boxer. That was before I was born, but when I was old enough, he used to enjoy telling me about his boxing exploits much more than he ever talked about WWII. He (like me) was only 5'6", so he didn't exactly convey fear into his opponents, but he would tell me that when they'd go out to center ring before the fight, he would say to his foe "You might beat me, but I'll keep the flies off your ass". Besides that, one thing that always stuck with me was he would wouldn't try to knock the other guy out - he would jab, jab, jab at the opponent's shoulders. He said eventually, Butterbean would wear out and couldn't lift his arms and would be ripe for the kill. What in this wide world does this have to do with running? Well, here in Birmingham, we're in our 41st straight day of 90 degrees or hotter and I feel like I've been jabbed and jabbed and I'm wearing out. I mean I got up at 4:30 the other morning to run and it was 80!! At least the humidity has plummeted to 85% and the run wasn't half bad. Oh well, like they say (whoever THEY are), if you don't like the weather, wait 30 minutes and it'll 'bout 6 weeks and it'll change! Then, this morning I was 6 miles into a long run and the lightning and thunder started popping all around me. It was pretty scary. As runners do, for no good reason, I came up with a mantra to get me through...Sweat, Pray, Run. Guess I've been reading too much hype of that new Julia Roberts movie! Maybe the heat streak will now break with this rain, but until then, this is purely survival running folks. Don't get discouraged with your training. Keep jabbing at the weather and IT will wear out! Trust my dad. It works.

In October, our local TNT Chapter has a group going to San Francisco, most of those runners and walkers to do their first long distance event. When one thinks of San Fran, one immediately thinks of two things - Ghiardelli chocolate and hills. Ok, maybe not everybody thinks of the chocolate, but this is my blog and that's what I think about. But, to every runner, mention to them "San Francisco" and the first response is going to be some comment about hills. So, let's calm some nerves and look at training for a hilly long distance event.

Now, I'm a big believer in hill training to make you stronger, but I'm also a believer that if you do it every day, it will flat wear you out! You know how they say (there THEY are again) hills are speedwork in disguise? Well, there's no disguise about it...speedwork sucks and hill training sucks! THEY also say hills are your friend? Well, THEY also say "With friends like you..."! But, if you're bound for SF or any other bumpy marathon or ultra, the first thing is to learn the course.If you see bumps and lumps throughout the course, the only way to beat them down during the race is to learn to beat them down in training. The Nike Marathon website says it's a flatter course. OK, fine, but looking at the elevation chart, I see 4 significant "inclines". So, I know it's hot as blazes here in Birmingham, but we have to start taking hill training a little seriously with the marathon only 9 weeks away. You always should try to mimic the basics of the course in your training. It's called "Specificity of Training" and I think it is one of the most important aspects of putting together a solid training plan. There are two basic ways to improve your hill running - one is to train on a relatively up & down course, or you can always opt for the more "hell-on-earth" method of doing hill repeats. This blog is not going to be a training manual, so I won't go into specifics of how many reps and how long the hill should be, but I do want to emphasize that for you to be able to become the bear that went over the mountain, you better meet that mountain many times before you put your toes on that starting line. Besides getting your quads (thigh muscles) and calves stronger, it will make you lift your knees higher (or you'll trip), increase your ability to control your breathing (or you'll be wheezing and gasping) thus improving how your body utilizes the oxygen you're sucking in, and it will teach you rhythm, one of the most overlooked and crucial aspects of distance running. If you let the hills break up your rhythm, you will slow dramatically. Those of you that run with me on Sunday mornings know that I have repeatedly said that you have to keep an even cadence. That means that if someone was just listening to you run, they shouldn't be able to tell if you were going up, going down, or running on level ground. It's just that going up will shorten your stride, and going down will lengthen your stride. An even effort is the key. If the grade of the hill is really steep, then use a very short stride - I also like to use the mantra "baby steps, baby steps" all the way up the hill. Try to keep your posture upright - don't lean too far forward or back as this will affect your breathing. If you start breathing more heavily, this is a sign from God that you're going too fast, SHORTEN YOUR STRIDE! When you (eventually) get to the top, try to run "through" the top of the hill and maintain the even effort until you start cruising into the downhill. It seems, most runners want to get to the top of the hill and yell "Woooooooooo" and slow to about a 30 minute/mile pace. Stay relaxed on the downhill and don't overstride (this will pound your feet, stress your hamstrings, and overuse your quads). Keep your feet low to the ground and your stride will be dictated by the steepness of the hill. Just ask a first-time Boston Marathon runner where he hurts the most the next day - odds are better than even that he will say his quads because it is mostly downhill for the first 16 miles and the quads are used for braking! With hills, unfortuneately it will cost you at least 10% more energy to go up than you save coming down using an even effort even if the total elevation gain and loss is zero! That's a bummer, isn't it?

Yes, it might be true that hills are speed training in disguise, and hills are your friends, and they are necessary in your training, but sometimes they're just a plain necessary pain in the butt! Good luck to all you TNT'ers training for San Fran. As long as you plan and train properly, you can't fail. That goes for hills, nutrition, pace, and all else that Mother Marathon wants to throw at you.Any questions? Email me
Keep jabbing away and I'll see you all on the hot and sticky roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Hills Are Alive...Sneaky Little Devils!

"Life is not measured by the numbers of breaths that we take, but by the moments that take our breaths away"

So, as I gleefully told you all last week, I was heading to the Great Southwest, New Mexico to be precise, for a week of vacation. Now, this was NOT to be a running vacation. Goodness knows that 128 marathons and ultras have dragged my wife here, there and everywhere to watch me run (I can't understand why that's not exciting, but...). No, this was to be a touristy trip to a place we had never trekked to before. So, being tired of my rapidly declining running pace in the hot and humid Alabama summer, I was looking forward to cooler temperatures, and more importantly, a much lower humidity. Both of those did come to fruition, but there was another variable lurking in the shadows to sabatage my plans of returning to my younger running paces - altitude!

Now, let's back up a few years ago when I got a crazy hankerin' to run the Pikes Peak Marathon. Not only was this 13 miles up, 13 miles down, at an average 11% incline, but Pikes Peaked out at over 14,000 feet! Hey, "I'm in shape. I can handle this". So, I got myself into a very intensive hill program, week after week, running to the top of Shackleford Point in Oak Mountain. Only problem was that Shack topped out at 1035 feet! The oxygen at 1035 feet is pretty much the same thick consistency as sea level, and the O2 at 14K is about 40% less. You should have seen Mr. Alabama hugging a boulder at 11 miles, wondering "what is wrong with me" while I prayed my heart wasn't about to explode out of my chest. I made it those other 2 miles where all I wanted to do was put my hands on my knees and "catch my breath". The volunteers at the top rip a tag off your race number and literally spin you around and give you a push to start you back down the mountain. They know you want breathe again, but they also know that ain't gonna happen till you drop about 2000 feet.

So, flash forward to the present where I'm in Albuquerque, Sante Fe, and Taos with an average elevation of 7000 feet. After my first stellar run on the perfectly flat-as-a-pancake Bosque trail, I thought "Holy Crow. What was that all about?". I couldn't figure out why my run was so pitiful. I mean the temperature was only about 60 degrees, and the humidity was certainly lower than Sweet Home Alabama. So, I decided to Google a little bit on the effects of altitude on pace and I was pretty surprised at what I found.

Performance starts to be affected at about 1000 feet. Now, we're not talking just about racing, but on running performance regardless of pace. These days my race pace and my training pace are pretty interchangeable, and even I have to smile when I say "race pace". Anyway, at the 7000 feet I was running, my VO2 max will drop about 12%. This is a measurement of how much oxygen your lungs can actually drain out of those "Help, I'm dying here" gasps you make as you stare at your stupid chronograph, sure that it's broken. You can have lungs the size of a boxcar, but it's the amount of O2 your body can tap from that volume of air that counts. Now, one thing working in your favor is that your running economy actually improves about 6% because of the thinner air. But, even my New Jersey math works out to about a 6% loss in performance - in a 10K race that would normally take you 45 minutes, you might be looking at about a 47:30. A sea-level four hour marathon would take you about 4:10 with all the other variables being equal. I was really surprised that a relatively modest raise in elevation could affect performance that much. Another thing that can work in your favor is that you do acclimate rather quickly, but even that's pretty tricky. I remember when I was getting ready for PP, they suggested to either get out there a week early or come the day before (I guess to try to surprise your body). I must say that by the 3rd morning in New Mexico I felt a ton better, but that was probably due to the 60% humidity instead of the ridiculous 90% stuff. Then again,maybe it's the chili I've been eating - I'm not sure. Maybe I'll Google the effects of chili peppers on running performance - next RWA.

I don't mean for this to be any kind of dry physiology lecture, but it might give you another variable food for thought on whether to sign up for marathons in, say, Denver or Biloxi. If you sign up for Denver, fine. But, know what to expect before you stride across that start line. Every race can be a wonderful experience, but please learn the course and conditions first and then set realistic goals. Like I have always said to anyone complaining about a course to any Race Director, "C'mon, man. Did you do your homework?". Chances are they looked at the entry fee and that was it. OK, that'll be another RWA. See how easy it is to come up with with topics?

OK guys, it's time for me to pack up and get back home. Sure am looking forward to my long run on Sunday morning. Yeah, that should be a riot. Hopefully, I'll see you on the roads.

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"