I walked today. Well, it was actually Sunday. It’s not that walking is weird. In fact, we all walk every day. It’s that this time I walked DURING a specific run workout I was doing. Walking during a run is heresy in athlete speak. Ask many Ironman athletes what their goal is for the run course of an Ironman and it’s probably “to walk as little as possible on the run.” It’s unavoidable at times. In a long race, you sometimes get so broken down and there is no option but to trudge along and make your way to the finish. There’s no shame in that. I’ve walked in all but one of my Ironman races (the first one - don’t ask me why that one was so different. I’m still trying to figure it out). But in that scenario, you aren’t walking on your own terms. You’re walking because something gave out, whether it was your body or your mind. You were brought to a halt by fatigue and forced to walk.
The joke with our training group is whether the super fast Nike Next% shoes still help you when you’re walking a 6-hour marathon in an Ironman. It’s a realistic view that, yeah, you can buy these super nice shoes, but also, you’re probably going to walk because an Ironman is so freaking hard!
Sometimes walking is faster. At Ironman Arizona last fall, a group of our paragon athletes made a bet to see who would walk first. The only guy who ended up not walking actually had the slowest marathon time of the group. He said he never realized it was physically possible to a 15-minute mile. But he did it. He didn’t walk.
When I walked on Sunday, it was by my own free will, my own choice, my own decision to slow down. I was doing a long, solo trail run at Hill Country State Natural Area. I was fully equipped with two water bottles, 500 calories, sodium, a park map, and my phone. The park is a pretty rugged trail running destination and I was using this “social-distancing” opportunity to get out there and do something different.
To give a little more background, I’m the guy who always trains too hard. I pay a coach for my triathlon training specifically for the purpose of slowing me down. And sometimes I still don’t listen. If the interval says to hold 200-220 watts for 5 minutes, then I struggle to accept anything BELOW 220. That’s not always healthy, and it has gotten me into trouble at times throughout my triathlon career (Introduce constant crippling fatigue stage right). But I’ve gotten better as I’ve aged as an athlete, as I’ve aged as a coach, and as I’ve continued to read literature and listen to podcasts, gathering scientific information from true experts in my field. One of my favorites is Stephen Seiler, who has done 20+ years of research on endurance athletes in Norway. He’s a Texas boy at heart and a UT grad, and he’s spent his life studying the best endurance athletes in the world and writing about the training methodologies of Olympians.
Most of his research has centered around polarized training methods. What has he found? Largely, elites do a LOT of easy, aerobic training. In fact, some of them do 90-95% of their training in Z1 or Z2. (Seiler actually uses a 3 Zone HR model and his Zone 1 is roughly equivalent to our 5 Zone system Z1 and Z2). I know this stuff. I know the science behind it and I advise my athletes on this every day. It’s one of the single telling attributes of a high-level athlete: the ability to go easy when they are supposed to go easy. My favorite story from Seiler’s time in Norway is one where he is out on a training run (or ski possibly) with an Olympic XC skier on one of her easy days. He’s initially shocked by how slow she is going and that he can comfortably keep up with her. He knows that she would drop him in a heartbeat in a race, but on this aerobic training day, he feels quite comfortable skiing side-by-side with her. Then they come to a slight hill. As Seiler prepares to press up and over the hill, he’s shocked to see the Olympic athlete slow and begin to WALK! Incredulously, he asks her what she is doing and she replies that it’s an aerobic run and she doesn’t want her heart rate to get out of Z1/Z2.
I thought about this as I bopped around the trails at Hill Country. I started running on the lower half of the park first and most of the trails were flat. I’ve been marathon training all spring, so a 2-hour run wasn’t too daunting a task. I had some ideas of maybe crushing a couple of Strava segments and flexing my virtual trail running muscles. After about 45 minutes, I’d been running a steady 8:00-8:30 pace over some rocks and around roots. As I got towards the back of the park I started my ascent up “Ice Cream Hill,” a long, exposed climb on loose, white, limestone. I KNEW for sure this would be a Strava segment, and as I prepared to charge up the hill, I thought about Seiler. I thought about his research on the great Norwegian Cross Country Skiers, and how he found that the volume of their high-intensity training stayed mostly the same (or dropped), while the volume of their low-intensity training continued to build throughout their career. I thought about what I would tell my athletes. I thought about what my coach would tell me. I looked down at my heart rate as it started to creep into Zone 3. And then I walked.
And as I walked up the hill I realized this was one of the BEST parts of training. Here I was, in a beautiful remote park deep in the Texas Hill Country. I was getting all the training benefits I needed by walking up the hill and keeping my heart rate down. You see, my cardiovascular system doesn’t know if I’m walking, running, swimming, or riding. All it knows is that it’s at 140 beats per minute. As I walked up the hill, I took the chance to look around and appreciate the view. It was a sunny day and all I could see for miles was rolling hills and cedar trees. I felt fortunate to be able to experience such a scene WHILE still accomplishing the goal of my workout.
Today I’ll run. Today is Winnerval Wednesday and so I’ll be running fast. My heart rate will be high and suffering is almost guaranteed. That’s because today is a day to work a different energy system. Hard days hard. Easy days easy. Each day and workout has a purpose and on Sunday, that purpose was to keep it easy. So I walked.
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