Stretching Cells To Learn More About Them

The physiology of running can be broken down into three parts. There’s the body’s fitness: how fast you can get oxygen to the muscles and how fast you can go before lactate accumulates in the blood. Then there’s running economy: the efficiency with which you move. And then there’s mass: how much you weigh. Multiply fitness by running economy and divide by mass. That’s how fast you’ll go.

As a person ages, those variables don’t have to ineluctably get worse. We often gain weight, but we can lose it again. We pick up bad habits from injuries that change our form—say, a tweaked right ankle that makes us land too hard on our left. But a habit caused by an unconscious choice can usually be reversed by a conscious one.

Most important, as Kirby explained, our muscles change in ways that are both good and bad. As we train, over time, the mitochondria inside our muscle cells become more efficient at converting energy. New blood vessels develop. Tendons strengthen. On the other hand, our lean muscle mass declines with age, which is bad for marathoners and even worse for sprinters. Still, the decline doesn’t have to be steep.

The main reason that runners slow isn’t our bodies. It’s our lives. We get married, we have children, we work longer, our parents get sick. We have more important things to do with our time. Running is a sport that rewards consistent effort, and once you step away it’s hard to come back. Your body frays, which makes running less enjoyable, which accelerates the decline. We go slower as we age, but we also age when we start to go slower.

For about 13 years, my training routine has been roughly the same. I live four miles from work and, on weekdays, I usually run to the office and back home. (Yes, there’s a shower.) When I don’t have a marathon on the horizon, I’ll end up covering 30 to 40 miles a week. In the three months leading up to a marathon, I’ll do 20-mile runs on the weekend and speed up some of my commutes. Those weeks, I run closer to 50 or 60 miles.

According to Michael Joyner, a sports physiologist at the Mayo Clinic and a historian of running, there’s been an evolution in the way elite runners train. A century ago, the world’s fastest distance runner, Alfred Shrubb, just ran at a steady pace for less than an hour a day, three to five times a week. Gradually, people realized they could get faster by running longer and varying the pace. By the 1950s, the world’s best marathoner, Emil Zápotek, was running more than two hours a day and adding in interval training: workouts where you run a set distance (say a mile) at a faster-than-usual pace and then recover for a set amount of time (say, two minutes).

Now, the classical training program followed by elites includes interval runs, fast steady runs, long runs, and recovery runs. They run twice or sometimes three times a day, pushing their bodies right up to the red line where injury occurs. In all, they typically cover around 120 miles a week, which sounds like a lot but doesn’t actually take much time. An elite marathoner might spend 15 hours a week running, while a cyclist, swimmer, or cross-country skier might spend twice as much time training because they can do it without getting hurt. The easier a sport is on your joints, the more time elite training takes.

My new coaches listened to my description of my training regimen and told me it was fine—but far from optimal. The long runs I was doing were good. The total volume of training was OK. Ideally, I’d run many more miles a week, but that’s not a variable you can easily change without risking injury. The one variable I could truly improve was time spent running fast.

I wasn’t doing remotely enough work to improve one of the key metrics of running: VO2 max, a measure of the body’s ability to bring oxygen to the blood cells during intense exercise. Nor was I doing enough to improve my lactate threshold, a measure of the body’s ability to clear lactate from the blood. As Joyner put it, a runner’s VO2 max is equivalent to a car’s engine size, and his or her lactate threshold is the red line on the tachometer. I needed to improve both.

The author traveled to Nike HQ in Portland, Oregon, to have his VO2 max measured.

Courtesy of Nike

VO2 max improves mostly through speed workouts—running quarter miles, or miles, to the point of near exhaustion, resting briefly, and then running them again. Lactate threshold improves through what are called threshold runs: running hard at a pace that’s tiring but that doesn’t bring you to your knees. So, starting in early July, I began a new routine. I still commuted in by foot, but on Tuesdays I added focused runs to tax my VO2 max, and on Fridays I added threshold runs.

My new coaches wrote out plans for every workout in a Google Doc, and I reported how I did. Soon I was running mile repeats and 9-mile threshold runs before or after work. Within a month, something had started to change. I likely hadn’t run a mile faster than five minutes in a quarter century.

But in a track workout after coming home one day, I somehow churned out a 4:59. I felt bliss, convinced I had stumbled on a code that had magically advanced me to the next athletic level. Four days later, I botched a similar workout and remembered that getting faster is hard.

I wasn’t precisely following the prescribed program because life always intervened. I often had to run with a fanny pack to transport my wallet and keys, or a backpack to carry my clothes. My three sons supervised one track workout, which ended early when the 4-year-old justifiably got bored. Other runs involved stops at the dentist, the dry cleaner, and soccer practice. Red-eyes scuttled planned runs, as did sudden conference calls.

The beauty of running, though, is that it’s the simplest sport to fit into a day. Keep your sneakers nearby, and, when the opportunity arises, just get up and go.

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