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Rick's Corner

What’s Your Limit?

“What was the limiting factor in your last race?” It’s a question that a lot of people have hear from me, but the first time, it often draws a blank look.

The answer might be as simple as motivation. Or heat, or not wanting to aggravate a not-quite-healed injury. If I’m doing a trail race or cross-country run, my limiting factor is almost certain to be the footing. Three years ago I broke an ankle on a tree root, and I just don’t want to go all-out on uneven terrain. In these races, my limiting factor is fear.

But what the question is really asking about are factors that can be addressed in training. Even if you had a truly great race, something kept you from running even faster, and if you know what it is, you can design your training to attack it before your next race. It’s a strategy known as training your weaknesses—not to make them weaker, of course, but to minimize them. And while there are periodization theories that say this isn’t always the optimum thing to do, it’s the best approach for most people, most of the time.

There are at least four possible limiting factors, each with a distinct solution. And while other things, such as going out too fast, can create a bad race, what they’ll probably do is cause you to bash more thoroughly into one of these pre-existing weaknesses:

• The distance. If you’ve been training solely for 5Ks and 10Ks and suddenly decide to run a half-marathon, or even a 15K, this is almost certainly going to be a limiting factor. About two-thirds of the way through the extra-long race, the wheels come off and no matter how much you slow down, your body wants to quit. The solution is obvious: jack up your training mileage or restructure your training week to include at least one run that’s longer than the race distance (but no longer than 18-22 miles).

• Spaghetti legs. This is my term for the feeling you get when your legs just don’t want to do the job. The rest of your body may have energy to spare, but your legs have all the power of wet noodles, especially on hills or corners. It means they lack strength—which is different from stamina. The solution: lift weights, run hills, or do short, fast track repeats, such as 200s or 400s at substantially faster than race pace (but not quite all-out). Some types of cross-training may also work, such as cycling, cross-country skiing, or backpacking up and down big hills. This, by the way, is why even marathoners can benefit from 400s.

• Lactic acid buildup. This manifests as burning muscles and leaden legs. It’s different from lack of strength because you can probably still generate a good burst of power, whereas that can be well-nigh impossible if your leg strength is failing. The cure: tempo runs. I’ll talk about these more in a later post, but typically, you’d go for about 3 miles at 15 to 20 seconds slower than 10K race pace. Cross-training at a tempo-running effort level may also help.

• Lack of aerobic horsepower. This is more than just breathing hard during the race; it’s the sense that you can’t get enough air to do the job. The muscles are still hanging on and lactic acid burn hasn’t set in, but your breathing is shot and you’re either slowing down or hanging on by sheer guts. Physiologically, there’s huge dispute over what this means (the conventional wisdom is that it’s a cardiovascular limitation, but competing theories say that the limitation is in the muscle cells or even in your subconscious mind, which is trying to keep you from frying your muscles by running too far, too fast. But the solution is well known: you need to run more long intervals. That means 1000s, 1200s, or miles at 5K race pace or very slightly (as in 2-5 seconds per mile) faster—what I call “L” pace in a prior post. Alternatively, you can do short intervals at the same pace but on short recovery: e.g. 12 x 400 on 90-sec recovery.

Your attack on weakness, however, should not be single-focused. If you ignore muscle strength in favor of long intervals, for example, you may find that you’ve simply substituted one weakness for another. But if you focus on one factor while taking care to not lose ground in another, you’ll find it harder and harder to diagnose a single limiting factor after a race. Race distance should never be a factor in short races, but if you reach the point where “all of the others” is your answer in longer races, it probably means you’ve achieved a nicely balanced training program.

©2005 by Richard A. Lovett, all rights reserved

See this at http://running.richardalovett.com. If people want to come to my site, that’s great.

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