More on racing in workouts…


As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


After that last post, I was thinking more about the racing-in-workouts thing, and it reminded me of a great article about Matt Centrowitz, the coach at American University in Washington, D.C., from the Washington City Paper back in 2006. It’s a very long article with a lot of great stuff in it — a portrait of (as you’ll see if you read it) a very colourful guy. The reason I thought of it is because of this passage:

The next group heads off with a target of 67-second laps. Led by Brian McCabe, a junior with an itchy trigger finger, they immediately string out.

“Look at that, they’re already not together,” Centrowitz mutters.

“Hey!” he shouts. “McCabe! Drop back!”

What cross-country coach in his right mind scolds a runner for going too fast? Each workout is designed for a specific purpose—race simulation, speed building, maintenance, or recovery, for example—and Centrowitz adjusts the lap times according to the purpose. They’re also designed to hone a runner’s internal speedometer; it’s imperative that runners be able to tell the difference between even one-second increments of pace. Exercising temperance during a workout teaches the runner not only when to step on the gas but also increases the number of gears available to him.

“Relax, guys,” Centrowitz yells. “I want you to win the race, not the time trial.”

Centrowitz, 51, has been holding back since his college days at the University of Oregon. He was the steadying upperclassman for future Hall of Famer Alberto Salazar and other freshmen ponies who would gallop to the front of the pack and set a pace faster than their coach, Bill Dellinger, had prescribed. Even on the hardest workouts, Salazar would push the pace faster and faster until a voice from the pack, Centrowitz’s, barked for them to slow down. Practice often became a tug of war between the brash, young Salazar’s desire to cut loose and Centrowitz’s compulsion to follow the guidelines. “We wouldn’t listen to too many guys, but when Matt scolded you, you listened,” says former teammate Steve McChesney. “I think Matt saw the reasoning, the big picture. The rest of us just saw an opportunity to run fast, which is a lot of fun. At times, I think my career would have been better if I’d been as disciplined as Matt.”

Centrowitz’s second group of runners comes through the first 400-meter lap in 63 seconds. Those four seconds might not seem like a big deal, but in track, four seconds per lap is a huge difference in both time and level of exertion. Over a mile, four seconds per 400 meters separates a very good high school runner (4:15) from a world-class one (3:59). Extrapolated over a 6.2-mile cross-country race, four seconds per 400 meters adds up to nearly a minute and a half, which is roughly the difference between finishing in 100th place and 5th at nationals.

They slow down marginally but still run the second lap in 66 seconds. Centrowitz again shouts for McCabe to slow down. McCabe doesn’t alter his pace, so Centrowitz folds in his bottom lip and emits a piercing whistle that gets his attention. “Stop!” he bellows.

McCabe grudgingly steps out of line, followed by the other runners.

“McCabe, what’s the matter with you?” Centrowitz demands. “I told you 67 or 68. What didn’t you understand about that?”

McCabe glowers.

“Answer me!”

“I don’t know!” McCabe shouts back.

“Well, go figure it out. Maybe you should go to the trainer and get a Q-tip. Clean out your ears.”

Centrowitz sends a steaming McCabe off for a jog. When he returns, still staring daggers, Centrowitz calls him over and puts a meaty hand on his shoulder. “OK, I’m sorry, but this is called coaching, or else you’re the coach,” he says in a softer voice. “It’s called discipline. Get used to it.”

Great article, and very much worth a read. I trained with Centro for three years, and have many fond memories of, say, him forcing me to take my watch off halfway through an interval because I was checking it too frequently. Sometimes his workouts were easier than you thought they should be; other times they were harder that you believed you were capable of. Either way, he told you the pace, and you hit it, no questions asked.

What Simon Whitfield learned from Alberto Salazar and Jerry Schumacher


As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


I spent this morning down by the Sydney Opera House, watching the first leg of this year’s ITU World Championship Series. It was a lot of fun — the course was set up well for spectators, with a nice, short criterium course with lots of loops. The run felt like a Tour de France stage, with a three-man breakaway so far ahead of the main pack that you thought they’d never be caught. But just past the halfway mark, as the chase pack swarmed by, a Spanish coach beside me glanced at the contenders, nodded at the guy beside him, and said one word with absolute certainty: “Docherty.”

Sure enough, several kilometres and a few dramatic moves from French, Russian and American guys later, it was New Zealand’s Bevan Docherty who emerged at the front for the final run-in, with Simon Whitfield closing strongly to finish in fifth from a pack that was 11-strong with just a few kilometres to go. Great start to the season.

Which brings me to my point. I had the chance to chat with Whitfield last week for a forthcoming article — lots of fun to talk about training and hear about his new coach and his experiences running with Alberto Salazar and Jerry Schumacher’s Nike training groups in Portland, Oregon. More on this later, but one quick highlight: a key message that he came away with, particularly from Schumacher, was precision and control.

If they’re doing a tempo run where the pace is supposed to be 3:05 per kilometre, and you go out and run 3:03 per kilometre, that’s not a success. That’s a fail.

Obviously that’s easier said than done, especially when you’ve got a group of extremely competitive athletes training together. But no matter how many times you hear the rule “don’t race in training,” I think it’s still arguably the most common training mistake among endurance athletes — and I think coaches who give mixed messages share a big part of the blame. (If you tell your athletes to hit a certain pace and they go faster, do you give them positive or negative feedback?) So kudos to Schumacher for being clear about this.

Train low, compete high


As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


One of the most interesting developments in sports nutrition over the last few years is the “train low, compete high” concept — the idea that purposely doing some of your training when your glycogen stores (the main form in which your body stores carbohydrate for exercise) are low can boost your performance when you eventually compete fully loaded. An initial study in 2005 found that subjects doing half their training in the “low” state ended up with higher glycogen levels and longer time-to-exhaustion. But there were some questions about how well those results would translate to real-life — for example, whether trained athletes would experience same effects as the untrained volunteers in that experiment.

A new study [LINK FIXED] from Asker Jeukendrup’s group at the University of Birmingham, just posted online at Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, tackles some of these questions, with interesting results. The set-up was two groups of seven cyclists, training six days a week for three weeks. Both groups alternated 90-minute aerobic sessions with intense interval sessions of 8 x 5:00 with 1:00 rest. The control group did the sessions on alternate days, while the “low” group trained just three days a week, starting with the aerobic session to deplete glycogen, then doing the intervals an hour later without refuelling.

As hypothesized, the “low” group learned to burn more fat instead of carbohydrate — a physiological strategy that some experts think might allow your body to last longer before running out of glycogen. On the other hand, there was no difference in time-trial performance at the end of the study. You might think this means that the strategy was ineffective, but there’s an added wrinkle: not surprisingly, the “low” group managed a much feebler effort in their interval sessions (since they were so depleted), but still managed to improve by the same amount on the time trial. This means that the key variable in a training session isn’t how fast you go, but rather what stimulus signal you’re sending to convince your body to adapt.

In this regard [the authors write], we suggest that the additional “stress” of training with low glycogen compensates for a slight reduction in physical performance during training.

There was also a penalty to pay for the increased fat burning: the “low” group didn’t increase their carbohydrate-burning abilities as much as the control group:

This also suggests that training with low muscle glycogen may be counterproductive for athletes who compete in high intensity events where CHO oxidation plays a significant role in performance, and that this type of training may be more suited to preparation for ultra-endurance activities.

For now, it’s a case of “more studies needed” — although there’s no doubt that coaches and athletes are already experimenting with these ideas. It may be that trial and error will sort out some useful approaches before we really understand why they work.

[An unrelated note: I’m heading out on a hiking trip tomorrow morning, so I’m unlikely to be able to update the blog for the coming week. Next weekend, I’ll be watching the Sydney triathlon — the first stop on this year’s world championships series, and the first race on this course since Simon Whitfield’s immortal gold-medal performance in 2000. Can’t wait!]

Training for a mountainous ultramarathon (!)


As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


In the comments section of another post, a reader posed an interesting question about training for an upcoming ultra-marathon (not just any ultra-marathon, mind you: the fabled Canadian Death Race!).

I am training for my first ultra-marathon, the 125km Canadian Death Race. It takes place in early August. My weekly long runs are reaching marathon distance. I’m curious about a couple of things:
1. Understanding that it is unrealistic to train to 125km, what is a realistic distance to train to?
2. Considering I have another 4 months of training ahead, should I peak at marathon distance, taper, rest and then build up to train past that distance. Or should I aim for consistent long distances for the remaining months?
Any help would be appreciated. Thanks for your time.

These are some good questions — and ones that fall outside my area of expertise. So I figured I’d try to rope in a real expert to offer some advice. Derrick Spafford is a hardened ultra vet and experienced coach (readers of Canadian Running may remember Spafford whizzing past editor-in-chief Michal Kapral in his account of the Rock and Ice Ultra [10MB] last year.) Here’s what he had to say:

It does sound like you have built up to a very good level getting in up to the marathon distance for your long run. You haven’t indicated if these are mountain miles that you have done or flat miles…big difference obviously. Not knowing what the rest of your training has involved, it is tough to give you the best answer to your question, but here are a few guidelines that you may find helpful.

1. For your long run, I wouldn’t be too concerned with distance, but just getting in the time on your legs. The length should be a gradual progression that is slowly increased with your longest run being about 3-4 weeks before the race. Building up to between 6-8 hrs for your long run should be the goal for completion, and this can include regular walk breaks while hydrating, refueling or on difficult climbs. During your buildup it would be best to also incorporate back to back long runs too. These offer the benefit of getting in some long hours over the weekend, but are not as demanding and are easier to recover from. A back to back long run weekend could eventually look something like Saturday 4hrs/Sunday 3hrs. Alternating between a single long run on one weekend and back to back long runs the next weekend works well. Then be sure to add a recovery week every 3-4 weeks.

2. Since you are already up to the marathon distance in training, I would encourage you to sign up for a Trail 50km in May/June, then take a few weeks to recover before your final buildup towards the Death Race. Getting a shorter trail ultra under your belt will give you a chance to fine tune your nutrition, gear and give you confidence for the big one.

One final piece of advice is to be sure to get some time in on the hills or mountains. This can be done either by running hill repeats, continuously run up a mountain, or doing continuous uphill runs on a treadmill. These also need to be increased very gradually though. Practicing some downhill running is equally as important as well to help strengthen your quads for the continuous braking action of descending.

I hope this helps.

Needless to say, this sounds like excellent advice. I particularly like the idea of alternating single long runs with two-day “long-run weekends” as a more tolerable way of getting in time on your feet. And I can also attest to the importance of getting in training on the hills. I just did a mountain race for the first time last weekend — a very short one, but the downhill absolutely ravaged my legs. I definitely couldn’t have kept going for another 120 km!

Thanks to Ben for the question, and to Derrick for taking the time to offer his expertise.