Sunday, June 12, 2016

Short Interval Running…not just for beginners?

I’ve been trying to be a runner for a very long time.  And by a long time I mean decades.  As a young twenty-something, I tried running as a strategy to lose weight and quickly discovered that it was hard.  Really hard.  I tried over and over again through my twenties and my thirties and each time I failed.  I tried various learn to run programs, each with the same result…every time I attempted to run for longer than  7 or 8 minutes I would fail.  My lungs would fail, my legs would fail and worst of all, my spirit would fail.  Fortunately, my stubbornness would win out and each time I would tell myself that there was no good reason for my failure…I just needed to try harder.  I had a few good years that I successfully managed a 10 and 1 run/walk interval but for those years the result was a lot of injuries and very few of those ‘good’ runs that you hear the ‘real’ runners talking about.

Fast forward to 2011 when a friend and I spontaneously signed up for the Walt Disney World Princess Half Marathon.  I had run the Tely Ten a few times, several years earlier, but a half marathon was completely new territory.  I was drawn into the excitement, the bling, the tiaras and the tutus and decided that I needed to find a way to run successfully, without getting injured, and feel good about it.  Having not learned from my previous mistakes, I again registered for a traditional Learn to Run program with a local running group…according to the schedule I would be able to run 10 minute intervals with a one minute walk break by the end of the 10 weeks.  If you’ve been following along I’m sure you can guess what the outcome was…again I struggled and didn’t complete the program. 

Luckily, my running partner had done some research for the Princess race and discovered the training programs on the RunDisney website.  As a retired Olympic marathoner and the official trainer for the RunDisney race series, Jeff Galloway recommended trying his run-walk-run method: short running intervals – no more than a 5 minute run before taking a short walk.  He claimed that anyone could run a half marathon (or even a full marathon) using this method.  We restarted our training, using a 3:1 run/walk interval and found ourselves running longer and longer distances…without exhaustion, without injury and best of all with energy to spare.  Four months later we successfully completed our first half marathon - injury free, feeling great, proudly sporting our tiaras and medals at the finish line.

The theory behind the shorter intervals is to rest before your running muscles get fatigued.  This is where my mistake has always been in the past (and where many others fail I suspect)…waiting until you are tired before you take a break.  Because the muscles responsible for running are slightly different from those for walking, resting them early allows for longer periods of activity overall and less stress on those muscles that are more prone to injury when overworked or fatigued.  Because you are not ‘tired’ when you take your walk breaks, you move faster overall and recovery is much quicker than if you wait, allowing you to run (and walk) faster for each interval.  In many cases (myself included) short interval runners end up with faster finishing times than those at a similar level that run continuously or only take walk breaks as they feel necessary.

Along this journey I’ve discovered so many others just like me…desperately wanting to run but never successfully making it past that magical 7 or 8 minute interval.  The high rate of drop-outs in Learn to Run programs after week 5 supports the notion that longer interval/continuous running just might not be for everyone. 

Do I feel like I’m not a ‘real’ runner because I stop every 3 minutes for a short walk? Yes, sometimes I do, especially at the start of a race when others look at your walking break at 3 minutes in as a sign of fatigue.  But the problem is that I’ve learned that I can’t successfully run for longer periods without exhausting myself (or worse, injuring myself).  I like to run fast (well fast for my books anyways) and I can’t do that for the longer intervals.  So the choice becomes easy: run shorter intervals with more frequent walk breaks or not run at all.  In the end, a mile is a mile is a mile…run it however makes you feel good.  For me the shorter intervals mean feeling better and finishing faster and that equals a great run in my books any day.