I would finish teaching at 6 PM, change clothes in the bathroom of the English school where I worked, and walk the two miles to the track for practice every Monday night, lugging all my stuff. At 7 PM, the warmup would begin, and the 20 or so runners in the group would take off down Vassar Street to the river. If I had to guess, I would say that they were running no slower than a 8- or 9-minute-per-mile pace. I had no business then and I would have no business now warming up at a 9-minute pace. But I was there to work hard, right? I trailed the pack, but wouldn’t let myself slow down enough to lose sight of them. Knowing now what an actual warmup is supposed to feel like, I can’t help laughing at the 2011 me, panting my way back to the track to rejoin the group “warmed up” and ready to work. I might have been totally winded and worn out already, but I had saved face by not letting the second-to-last runner get more than 10 paces ahead of me!Read More
“Embrace the resistance. Work is work no matter how slow. And we have WORK to do this month!” This is what my coach wrote to introduce us, her athletes, to the month of September.
From the outside, running looks like a sport that is about nothing but speed. Races are won at the top of the game by running faster than anyone else. Many runners define themselves, value themselves, and compare themselves to others based on how fast they run. My run coach, MK Fleming, has worked tirelessly for years to convince her athletes that being willing to go slow is one of the greatest strengths a runner can possess. Furthermore, she would argue (and the science definitely supports her), your pace is not telling you the things you think it’s telling you, even though it’s the one number we all focus on to the exclusion of all others. She makes us run easy workouts at an effort level that is truly, verifiably easy; she gives us a firm heart rate cap, we wear heart rate monitors, and they do not lie. Our beats per minute go above the cap, we slow down, period. She has apparently earned a reputation as “the coach who makes you run real slow,” which in itself proves her point that everyone is only focusing on one metric. Looking more closely, it is worth noting that her athletes also run a whole lot. When you actually run easy, you can run more, and if you want to build cardiovascular endurance, more is key.
Slow is not always about easy, though, and this month, all our strength exercises are to be performed for one minute, AFAHP (As Few [reps] As Humanly Possible). If we complete a total of one leg-lift over the course of a minute, she says, that’s ideal. She knows that our overachiever instincts will naturally drive us towards the AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible, a bit of CrossFit shorthand) end of the spectrum, which isn’t actually going to get us where we need to go, even if it makes us feel in the moment like we are doing MOAR!
With AFAHP, we intentionally slow down and it makes us work harder. On our runs this month, we will work so hard that we involuntarily slow down. Example: this morning I found the steepest hill in Somerville and spent the core of my workout windsprinting up it for 10 seconds, doing jump squats at the top, jogging back down, and then repeating until I could not stand upright. Jog home, perform one minute of high knees uphill to the house. My cooldown jog was slower than the pace i run at recovery effort, because I could not have run any faster if you had offered me a hundred dollars. I get to do this workout, which MK has named "Miss Janet," every Tuesday of this month.
I'm a runner, right? Ask me about my pace. Average pace for this morning’s workout: four minutes per mile slower than my usual average pace on an easy day, let alone a hard day. Ask me about the number of reps I do for each exercise in my strength circuit: in the single digits. If you lived in my body right now, though, you would be experiencing that Sore As Fuck feeling. This morning, I groaned as I poured milk into a cup for my daughter. “Mommy, why did you make that noise?” “Because my muscles hurt!” “Oh, your muscles? Why?” “Because my coach loves me!”
Coach MK does not create these workouts in a vacuum. She does love us, and part of how she loves us is by taking away the meaningfulness of the metrics that we have all used at times to beat ourselves up. Pace means nothing in the workout I described above. Work means everything. She helps us define the work that needs to be done and gives us tools to do it effectively. A surprising amount of the time, what we need is less and not more. “Speeding through anything, she says, “from runs to pushups, is rarely a good idea. Rather, faster in these particular circumstances is LESS likely to achieve your goal, not more likely. MOAR isn't necessarily better and neither is faster.”
A lot of athletes do not like to hear this, and Coach MK also knows that the more-more-more mentality we bring to running goes much, much farther than running, and she is in a position to help us confront our type-A tendencies and assess how much they are actually helping us. Self-Care Sunday, as she calls it, asks us to seek out “activities and practices that we can engage in on a regular basis to reduce stress and maintain and enhance our short- and longer-term health and well-being.” If we are to work with her and expect results in our running, then we must acknowledge that taking care of ourselves is essential for “effectiveness and success in honoring [our] professional and personal commitments.”
This goes beyond determining which workouts are physiologically suited for runners chasing certain goals. This is high-level coaching about how to make intentional decisions about our daily lives, and how to think critically about which metrics matter and which ones are sexy but meaningless. How many more 800-word essays will the Miss Janet workout inspire? Time, and resistance, will tell.