Tuesday, November 2, 2010

RunnerDude Chats with Matt Fitzgerald

Two of my favorite training-related books are Brain Training for Runners and the recently published Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel. Just recently, I reviewed Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feek on the blog and highly recommend both books to runners.

Last week I had the privilege to chat over the phone with Matt Fitzgerald, the author of both books. Matt knew he wanted to be a writer at the age of nine. His passion for writing and love of running and fitness have led him to author and coauthor more than 17 books as well as writing for several national publications and Web sites such as Outside and Runner's World. Matt is currently a senior editor for Triathlete magazine and the senior producer for the Competitor Running Web site. Matt is also a great runner having run more than 15 marathons with a personal record marathon time of 2:41.

I enjoyed talking with Matt and getting to know him a little better. Below is our conversation.

RD: I read in your bio that your running really took off when you ran the last mile of the Boston Marathon with your Dad as he finished the race in 1983. How old were you when this took place?
Matt: I was 11 just about to turn 12.

RD: So what was it that hooked you on running? Was it running with your dad? The crowd? Crossing the finish? Or all of that combined?
Matt: As anyone that experiences it knows, Boston is a magical experience. Back then Bill Rogers was still in the front of the race, so I got to see him. It was the year that Joan Benoit broke the World Record and I got to see her. It was the first year that Dick and Ricky Hoyt ran Boston. I also think it was the year 93 people broke 2:20. On top of all of that, just getting the experience of running that last mile with the mad throngs of the Bostonians out there screaming urging you on and to experience all that with my dad was very special. As novel as it was, it also seemed normal because you know when you're a kid anything your parents do, you just take for granite as normal and I thought everyone ran marathons. The very next day, my older brother and I both announced at the breakfast table that we were going to be runners too.

RD: So, was running always a part of your family? Obviously your dad must have been a runner, having qualified for Boston.
Matt: Yeah, my dad was sort of this warrior, dragon-slayer kind of guy. He was a navy frog man. He did these crazy solo long-distance swims, most before I was born. He'd swim from Canada to where he grew up in New York state, like 27 miles or something across Lake Ontario. Then he got into running. He ended up running Boston three times. So, I just got it straight from him. He wasn’t a real fast guy, but he had endurance. Actually I have two brothers and the three of us are more gifted runners than my dad, but we got the inspiration from him. Two of the three of us ran track and cross country in high school. My younger brother didn't actually get into any competitive running, but he'll jump into a race from time to time and to this day he would not call himself a runner, but he's run a 3:03 marathon.

RD: Well with a 3:03 marathon, I definitely think that qualifies him as a runner.
Matt: Yeah. (Laughing)

RD: Sounds like you grew up in a very active family. Today it seems like the childhood obesity rate is growing out of control in the US. I think running is a great way to get kids healthy and active. What do you think is a good age to get kids into running?
Matt: As soon as they're physically able to run. Not structured running as we know it, but you know kids will do it spontaneously. Running is fun. I think you should encourage spontaneous play and get them moving and as they get older start to structure it some. It’s providing opportunities that's the key. Enjoyment is also the key to longevity in running or any sport. If you take the fun out of it, kids won’t stick with it.

RD: The readers know about you as a writer and your connections with triathlons and running, but what is something about Matt Fitzgerald that may surprise the blog readers?
Matt: I guess perhaps (I don't know if this is interesting or not), but you know I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be a runner. My dad was a writer too, so I just knew almost from the beginning that that's what I wanted to do. You know as a kid dreaming about being a writer, you think about writing the next great American novel. I never thought about putting my writing and running together. That just sort of happened when I got a job at Endurance Sports at 24. You know I read all the time. I'm made fun of here at work all time. There's a deli near where I work and you can often find me there with a book in front of my face, but it's almost never a running book. I read things like War and Peace, stuff I read as an English major in college.

RD: Well, I guess you need a break from your work, so your reading is an escape.
Matt: Yeah, I'm often asked if my wife is a runner too and she's not. I'm glad she's not. Not because I don't want her to run, but if my entire life...my wife, my work, my pleasure reading, my hobbies...were all running-related.....yuck. I like balance and variety.

RD: You've run quite a few marathons with some pretty impressive times. I think your PR is a 2:41. Which race or event is the most memorable for you?
Matt: Well, that PR marathon was pretty memorable. I ran that PR at age 36 or 37. I had long despaired of ever setting a PR. Ages 31-34 were pretty much wiped out for me due to injury. I got to a point that I doubted I'd ever even finish a marathon again. Then I just sort of figured some things out and healed and sort of got this second opportunity. Actually a third opportunity. Although I had run in high school and even chose a college with a great running program, I burned out and quit running from ages 18-26 and then got back into it in my late 20s and wished I had never quit and wanted to make up for lost time. Then I got the injury bug and lost it again. I don't think I ever got even close to the level I could have been at if I had just stuck with it. But to have had a great marathon time at age 37, I felt pretty good about that.

RD: One of the things I like about the books you've written is your willingness to say that things will change. Even in your book Run, you admit that some of your views on running and training had changed some since the previous book Brain Training. What's one of the most surprising changes you've observed in your learning and writing about running?
Matt: You know that I arrived at this place when I was working on Run that I abandoned things like using training plans and doing things "the right way" in favor of using a much more improvisational or intuitive approach to running. If you had asked me 15 years ago if I felt that improvisation or an intuitive approach were important to successful running, I would have said, "Sure." But I had no idea how important that element would be in running. The last couple of years I've had so much exposure to some of the best runners in the world and begin able to sit down and talk with runners like the great Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie and American distance runner Ryan Hall, I've learned so much about what separates them from the rest. Up until this point, I thought it had more to do with talent, but what I've learned is that it's not that. Well it is talent, but what separates the most talented from the rest is that they've really learned to listen to their bodies. Look at Haile Gebrselassie. He's pushing 40 and running sub 60-minute half-marathons. How does he do that? He does it because he does it his way. I really don't think I'm going to change my mind about that. You have to know the workouts. At some point someone has to teach you what an interval session looks like. There's lore of running that has to be handed down that you don't want to have to recreate on your own, but once you have the basic tools, you have to learn to listen to your body, especially if you on longevity.

RD: How about your interview with Gebrselassie ("Geb")? In Run you mentioned being a little worried about the interview.
Matt: Well, it was one of those things where I was told, not that he's reticent, but A) there's the language barrier and B) there's just a different way of thinking about running in east Africa. Honestly (in an admirable way), it's that they think a hell of a lot less about it. They're not sitting around reading about running all day. There’s less clutter. Running is all simple to Geb. I would ask him some questions and he'd look at me with a “Duhh” expression and say, “You do the training. Training for a marathon, you do a little more. Train for a 10K, run a little less and a little faster.” It was all very simple to him.

RD: I thought Geb’s response to your questions about age and training were awesome. He said, he had made a few changes to avoid injury, but he also said that the reason he keeps winning is because of his age. It’s like he’s figured out the secret that everyone else is still looking for….what to do to win the race, before the race, after the race, and recovery. The thing is that it’s not something he can bottle and share. It’s what works for him. To him it’s quite simple. To the rest of us, it’s quite magical. We each have to discover our own magic.

We here in the west tend to be so exact and quantifiable. One of Geb's favorite workouts is a hill workout, but instead of a bunch of precise hill repeats, he runs up a mountain. If he gets to the top and feels good, then he’s conquered the workout and achieved his goal.
Matt: Yeah, the western way is "What's the optimal duration for the uphill portion of this workout." While Haile Gebrselassie would say, "Just run to the top!"

RD: Lots of runners that I work with run their first major endurance run and have this runner's high and they want it to continue. What do you recommend as a safe way to keep that high but not be too ambitious? Do you have any recommendations for periodization or seasons for runners? Listen to me, now I'm getting all technical (laughing). I don't want them to over train, but I don't want to stifle that new excitement.
Matt: When I say the most important thing you can do as a runner is listen to your intuition and heed it and let it guide you, that's a little simpler than it really is. We all have a multiplicity of voices inside us that often conflict. It's a process and you have to learn to sort of distinguish the most reliable and trustworthy voices inside yourself from those that are based on insecurities, fears or whatever. I gave the example with Ryan Hall in the book, where he talked about feeling like he felt like he had to do more, more, more. But then he had another voice that said, "Just let it come. Don’t' force it. Yes you have to work hard, but not all the time." It took him a little while to understand that he had two voices talking to him and through experience he learned which one to trust more. So in reference to the new runner and how much to do, it's kind of an individual thing. Only experience can teach what's the right mix for you. Sometimes it may need to be more measured, but sometimes experience is the best way to learn your abilities and limitations.

RD: I have a lot of runners coming to me in their 40s and 50s saying that they're not running like they used to. They think it’s related to aging. But, I've kind of determined that more than an age thing, it's more related to having a weak core and weak upper body. As we get older we tend to be involved in fewer activities that help keep the core fit, so it weakens. Adding more core and upper-body muscular endurance exercise really benefits these runners. What's your take on this?
Matt: Yes, I agree. I'm a strong advocate of being a strong runner. I think it's important for a runner at any age, but especially as we age. I was talking with Dave Scott, the six-time Ironman athlete who is 56. He can still do a sub 9-hr Ironman even at his age. I spent week training with this guy and he's incredible. I asked him why? He said two things...1) I've never let up on high intensity training. Lots of people let up as they get older. 2) I'm strong. The benefits of resistance training are key to endurance. Runners that have kept resistance training in their routine find that they run much stronger and much longer than runners that just run.

RD: I recently saw a picture of several elite marathon runners in profile running and they all looked as if they were heel strikers. What's your take on the barefoot running approach or just the idea of having more of a forefoot, midfoot foot strike?
Matt: Well, photos can be deceptive. Heel striking isn't necessarily the same thing as heel weighting. If your heel is the first part that hits the ground, you may actually be flat-footed by the time you're putting 3-4 times your full body weight on your foot. So you can't go by the photo. The research is pretty clear. In general the faster you are the farther forward you land on your foot. You look at the elite runners and many think, okay that's what I need to do. But you can't do everything the elite runners do. Elite runners run 135 miles a week. The average runner isn't going to be able to do that, nor do they need to.

Stephen McGregor's research shows that running is learned unconsciously. Basically you can look at running as a complex dynamic system. There is a fundamental set of rules. You let the system go and you see what happens and it self-optimizes. It doesn't perfect itself, it just optimizes it's function within existing restraints. Running is like a problem that each runner solves for themselves. You can't do it by consciously enforcing one universal set of rules. If you do, it backfires. When you try to run a certain way that's different than the way you naturally run, it makes you less efficient, not more efficient. That doesn't mean you're stuck running the way you're running now. It just means that in order to run better than you're running now, you need to keep running. Just let the process happen. Running hard appears to really help. Running in groups seems to help a lot. I still think there's a place for conscious manipulation of the stride, but more with the idea of preventing re-injury. One of the things that Stephen McGregor found is that some runners land a lot heavier than others. These runners tend to break down quicker, so here's perfect example of when conscious manipulation serves a purpose. So, if you get injured a lot, then playing with your stride is worth exploring, otherwise stick with what works for you.
RD: That’s great to hear. I've always felt that running stride and foot strike is an individual thing and is unique to each runner. If it isn’t broke, don't fix it.

RD: Tim Noakes, the author of Lore of Running (the bible for many runners) wrote the forward in your book Brain Training for Runners. In the forward he said, "I expect runners who follow these guidelines to have more success more frequently than if they were to follow other programs, mine included." Wow! What an endorsement! How did that make you feel?
Matt: Yeah, yeah, I felt great. Anytime you feel respected by someone you respect, it's awesome. That he appreciates my work, I was over the moon. It's really cool to have a relationship with someone that smart and that accomplished. I'm not a scientist myself. I'm not in the trenches. It's not the scientist's job to make runners run better. That's not really their role, but they make valuable contributions and that's not a contribution I can make. I love learning about how science can be used to help runners run better. I need people like Noakes to help me in my work. My idea of hell would be to reiterate something someone else has already said. So, I utterly depend on having relationships with people like Noakes who share their work with me.

RD: On a different topic, what do you think about the whole issue with Boston filling up so fast this year and the questions over the qualifying standards?
Matt: I haven't followed that too closely, but I would say that it's a fair question. You want gender equity in sports. Sounds good, but then you ask, "What does that mean." When my dad ran Boston the first time, it was about 85% men. That was a problem that needed to be changed. You want endurance sports to be at least 50/50 male/female. The sport has been greatly enriched by women coming to the sport. I work for Competitor Group and we do the Rock-n-Roll marathons and our events are majority women now. But if I were involved in setting qualifying standards for Boston, I think it would not be too soon to start looking at achieving a higher level of gender equity. Obviously men and women perform differently as runners so the standards need to be different, but still equitable. I think women should have just as good of chance but no better than men for qualify for Boston.

RD: So what's ahead for Matt Fitzgerald?
Matt: So glad you asked! I'm working on a new book now that I'm especially excited about. It's called Iron War. “Iron War” refers to the great battle between Mark Allen and Dave Scott in the 1989 Hawaii Ironman. I consider that to be the greatest race that ever happened in any racing sport. Not just the race itself, but the full rivalry between the two men and full richness and complexity behind the story of the race. It's such great stuff that you couldn't make it up. I've long thought about telling this story in long form and really deliver this page-turning adventure in similar fashion as Duel in the Sun. This is really a human story that anyone, not just runners, will enjoy and get something out of. It's a narrative, so it’s very different from what I usually write. I'm really excited about it.

RD: That's exciting. So when is it due out?
Matt: In about a year in time for a book release at the next Hawaii Ironman

RD: Any other exciting things to look for from Matt Fitzgerald?
Matt: I have a sequel to my book Racing Weight that will come out around Christmas or the New Year called The Racing Weight Quick Start Guide. It's a program for athletes who are more than a few pounds above their racing weight. It's helps guide them in how to lose body fat quickly the right way to set themselves up for training/performance success.

RD: Awesome. I look forward to reading and reviewing both books for the blog. Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share more about yourself and your work with the readers of RunnerDude's Blog.

To learn more about Matt and his books, be sure to check out his website as well as his many posts and articles at Competitior.


TRI714 said...

That was a great interview. And I'm looking forward to the upcomming books.

RunnerDude said...

Thanks TRI714! I'm looking forward to the new books too!