Saturday, April 17, 2010

Beware of the Ambition Trap!

If there's one thing that can get a runner into trouble, it's ambition. Now don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with being ambitious. Ambition has built sky scrapers, discovered cures for diseases, founded institutions of higher learning, and even invented The Clapper. "Clap on. Clap off. The Clapper."

But sometimes ambition, drive, and excitement can make the most intelligent person take some short cuts leading to some pretty bad outcomes. Sometimes runners fall victim to that same ambition trap. Only problem here is that the trap can often lead to injury.

Before starting any race training plan, a runner should have a solid base. The mileage of the base can vary from person to person as well as from race goal to race goal. If you google "base mileage," you'll probably find a variety of suggestions for a variety of race distances. I recommend that runners wanting to join one of my race training groups have a weekly mileage base of 15-25 miles for at least a month if they're planning to train for a 5K, 10K, or a half-marathon. For a marathon, a 20-25 weekly mileage base is good to have under your belt.

Okay, so the idea of a solid base before beginning a race training plan makes sense and most runners at least know about the importance of a base. So where does the ambition trap come into play? It usually rears it's ugly head in two different scenarios.

Scenario #1: The New Runner
We've all see it. A friend of yours has been running for a couple of weeks and things are going pretty good. He's been bitten by the running bug. Awesome! So, he decides to run a 5K or a 10K. He probably doesn't even know how many miles that is, but he wants to race... be a real runner. You try to talk him into getting a few more miles under his belt, but he's so smitten that he sign's up for the next race (the following weekend). It's race day. You're coming out of the port-a-potty and you see your friend at the front of the Start donning the 100% cotton race shirt (tucked in) he received in his packet about 30 minutes earlier. He's pumped! You're sick. He spots you a few rows back and motions you to move on up "where there's more room." You decline. Then the starting pistol's fired and your friend ducks for cover causing a few runners to jump over him while reeling off the most 4-letter words you've ever heard in 10 seconds. You run by your buddy, grab him by the scruff of his crisp Beefy T and get him to his feet. He replies, "Who got shot?!" You want to cry, but you just keep running. Your friend, now on his feet, bolts past you. You shake your head. A half mile into the race you see your buddy with a medic on the side of the road, 3rd degree road rash covering his face from the fall he took after losing consciousness from lack of oxygen. The medic gives you a thumbs up, so you keep running. Monday at work, you're not surprised to learn that you're buddy has given up running. The classic case of too much too soon.

Scenario #2: The Race-a-holic
There's usually one in every running group. You know, the guy that has a race planned for every weekend. There's nothing wrong with racing frequently, but maintaining a solid base during this racing frenzy is vital. Sometimes the ambitious racer will get a false sense of conditioning. For that first marathon, the runner's married to his training plan and as a result has an awesome race. The dedication paid off. The rest of his family might be ticked at all the running he's done, but the fruits of his labor provided a bounteous run. Stoked with this accomplishment and pumped with motivation, he finds himself scouring the Internet for upcoming races in the hotel before leaving for home. Again, there's nothing wrong with this. The ambition trap only rears its ugly head, if "Joe Runner" doesn't allow enough time to recover from the previous race as well as maintain a good base mileage during the period of time before the next race. Joe may think, "Hey, I just ran a marathon. I'm already trained. No need to kill myself like before." Joe has a point. He may not have to train the same way or as long as he did before, but he still needs to maintain his level of conditioning with a good weekly base as well as some other key workouts such intervals and the long run. If Joe rests on his laurels and doesn't maintain his racing fitness level, he's probably not going to have the same experience as the first race. If it doesn't catch up with him in the next race, it most likely will in the 3rd, or 4th race. It will come out of nowhere....the legendary WALL will smack him in the face. Even, the elites have seasons to their training. It may appear that they race nonstop yearround, but there's definitely a method to their madness.

If you're a new runner, log some good mileage before racing. If you want to experience a 5K or 10K race sooner, go into it with the idea that it's just another regular run. It will be hard, but hold back and use it as a learning experience to find out what it's all about. Then use the motivation you gain from that experience to continue building your base before starting a training plan for the "real" race you'll run later in the season.

If you find yourself wanting to race frequently, make a plan. Avoid racing off-the-cuff. Prior to race season scope out the races you'd like to run. Make a list. Then star the ones you definitely want to run. Next circle the ones in which you'd like to set a PR. Now evaluate your list. How many races do you have? Is there enough recovery time in between the ones you've starred? How about the ones you circled? Or did you circle them all? Go back and make yourself circle only the ones for which you really want to blow it out and set a time record for yourself. There should probably only be 2 or 3 (if that).

By doing a little planning, you'd be less likely to overtrain or actually undertrain because you have too many races back to back. This pertains to the 15:00-pace novice marathoner and the 6:00-pace experienced 5K racer. Both are susceptible to the Ambition Trap. Outsmart it with a little planning, keeping a good base, and allowing yourself ample rest and recovery time.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground." I think that applies nicely here.


jokach said...

Good advice, I find myself being in scenario #2 (although not racing every weekend). It took a lot of training and experience to understand the concept that you wrote about about needing to to keep up your base mileage and allow for some recovery before races. I tried to do 2 marathons just 3 weeks apart back in 2008 and did great in the first marathon, and terrible in the second and will never do that again... since then I space them out a bit more and plan my training for it to allow for adequate recovery and base mileage before hitting the next race, it really does keep you conditioned.

Derek Hill said...

Great blog. You should post that a few times a year. Like every November/December and sometime in the spring as well. When people are filling out their race calenders for the year. I've put a little to much on mine, not too close together just a lot of events, add in weekends where I'm working and it can be a lot. Awesome fun though!

RunnerDude said...

Hi jokach! Yep, I learned my lesson in '07 when I ran two marathons back to back. Ended up with a stress fracture in my heel.

RunnerDude said...

Hi Derek! Thanks man! Great idea about reposting this in the fall and spring. The racing is fun, makes it hard to pair-down that list.

Lauren said...

Loved scenario #1 -- cracked me up. I am a race junkie myself. And it is because I HAD TO fit in 20 races last year that I injured my hip. It was the 20th race that did me in. If I had only stayed with the 19, I would have not been nursing an injury for 3 months.

As always good advice.


EndorphinBuzz said...

Great advice thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Great advice - a little moderation makes everything better. Ambition is important, but one step at a time.