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JK Speaks: Progressing To Peak Fitness
by John Kellogg
July 1, 2005

From the coolrunning.com message boards comes this eloquent description of the art of training:

"I've always felt that there was a great deal of magic socked away in each runner's body - 'places,' if you will, that we can sneak up on, access, within a given run, if we're willing to ease back at crucial moments, warm up slowly, listen deeply and honestly to our bodies. HR monitors can help us isolate them; understanding the underlying physiological principles can give us the patience to segue effortlessly into them rather than demanding that they appear. But the magic still finally lives in the deep, sympathetic listening that we need to engage in: listening to the subtle rising and falling energies of our bodies at work. No amount of technology can ever replace that listening." - message board poster "KudzuRunner" on running by feel
(editor's note: JK posted as TG&P Oz on the thread above. We wondered what JK did with his spare time and now we see he really must read nearly every post on running on the internet)

This article will be a switch from cutting-edge jargon and tedious analysis of what the latest nugatory studies have to say about the changes that 10-second sprints invoke in the phosphocreatine system of lab rats. It will instead focus on developing the knack for the high-end, steady running that is a staple element (perhaps the key ingredient) of actually getting in shape! All stuff and no fluff. Nothing new will be revealed, but this should reinforce a few tried-and-true principles that many runners tend to forget in their dependence on exercise physiology and gadgetry.

As "KudzuRunner" has done, I also like to describe the weightless feeling achieved when you slot into the perfect pace on a fast, yet nearly effortless, continuous run as "summoning the magic." Sometimes it grabs you by chance and sometimes you invoke it by design, but there is no mistaking it. You will know it when you feel it. Being able to find it, developing a sensitive internal dialogue and turning your own body into a finely-tuned "lactate analyzer" is key. Pace guidelines are good as general reference points for many timed runs, but staying precisely on your "pace calculator"-determined speed should (in most cases) be trumped by the idea of making that magic last for the proper duration (or pushing the envelope just enough and not too much).

Without developing an internal sense of this crucial effort level, you will in essence be groping for a mathematical or algorithmic formula for success. Such "systems" can often produce apparently good results, since runners will be close enough to their ideal effort levels often enough to improve crucial aspects of fitness. Some athletes may even discover "the magic" through repeated workouts at speeds gleaned from a pace chart in a book. Yet adhering strictly to any predetermined schedule robs the athlete of full exploration of personal capacities for stimulation and recovery.

The science of running has come a long way, but it has an even longer way to go before it replaces the art of running. This is analogous to listening to a mechanized "player piano" versus listening to a professional musician. The machine relies on notes only (with at best minimal attention to dynamics); the human artist consolidates proper touch to the keys, either sudden or gradual increase or decrease of volume, sustaining certain notes, and many other techniques which make a piece "musical" rather than contrived or synthetic. No matter how many informative symbols are written on the music sheet, there are always hidden elements of a piece (usually the most pleasing aspects) which can only be uncovered and perfected through practice, practice and more practice. Consequently, there are many people who can play all the right notes but still miss the music.

Similarly, a beginning martial artist who manages only to memorize the positions and primary movements (stances, blocks, punches, kicks, etc.) of a kata (form) will not apply proper breathing technique, body torque and relaxation for the transitional movements (the stepping done between executing the primary movements) and will appear tense and robotic in comparison to a more advanced student or a master whose ability to store up and release energy is in perfect sync to produce a dynamic, fluid consolidation of rhythm and power.

So it is with training for the sport of running - the tyro attains isolated facts and pieces, but the master attains wisdom. The master has a deep, almost soulful, understanding of how to put all the pieces together to produce a finished product that transcends any other possible method of assembly. Cultivating this wisdom should serve as a polestar for every serious runner.

All this begs a question: Are there really distinct, preferable training zones which yield better results for the time invested or can training be done along the entire continuum of speeds between jogging and sprinting with equal effectiveness? This is a subject for another day, but the short answer is that running at certain effort levels for certain durations unquestionably produces more effective results. Notice that effort supersedes pace in this equation, although hitting a specific pace is often desirable. The intangible and largely unquantifiable aspect of zen-like rhythm achieved during a correctly executed high-end workout seems to promote extreme efficiency of movement, of ventilation and of substrate utilization, possibly by virtue of consistent, repetitive recruitment of motor units responsible for fine motor control, as well as (over several weeks) assisting in arriving at (and stabilizing) an ideal metabolism and weight. The notion of rhythm underscores the importance of favoring internal dialogue rather than gadgets or pace charts as a means of ascertaining effort.

Perhaps the best method of "aerobic endurance" running is personified in the Kenyan-style "progression run." In these runs, the pace is not normally restricted to any predetermined physical parameters and is done totally spontaneously. The start is slow, so slow that you should feel as though the easiest and most relaxing run of your life is in store. Complete relaxation with deliberate diaphragmatic breathing should be your primary focus. This creates the environment - opens the door - for a faster pace to materialize. If it does, the free-spirited nature of such running affords the opportunity to tune in on that inner dialogue which can guide you to mastery.

Again, "KudzuRunner" poetically describes a stage of this personal journey toward running wisdom:

"Having run easy on the out leg, with a few gentle accelerations as the turnaround point approached, I'd now do what I called 'opening up the throttle.' I'd gently and persistently float up into what I might now call my 'maximum aerobic pace' but had no words for back then. Sometimes, realizing that I was pushing just a little too hard, I'd back off the throttle just a hair, let my breath settle - and, as often as not, suddenly feel a little 'release,' a deep bubble of relaxation."

This quote embodies about 90% of "threshold" training in a nutshell. The idea is to start easy, with no set notion of running hard or fast, and let the pace come to you. You can have it in the back of your mind that if the magic is summoned, you'll go with it. But you don't force it to happen if it's not there.

Progression runs should not normally be miserable experiences in which you punish yourself in an attempt to develop your toughness. With an occasional exception, the time you accumulate prior to the point of struggling contributes at least as much to aerobic development as does the time you fight on after beginning to labor.

A "secret" to effective progression runs is to start slower than you would normally think would be of any benefit. This means operating at a walking pace for the first few minutes. Let the easy ambling slowly warm up every physical system in an impromptu fashion. While the pace should very gradually get a little faster, there should not be much of a definable point of effort increase between the walking speed at the start and the high-end aerobic pace in the "tempo" portion of the run. Of course, breathing will be stronger and perceived effort will be higher when running faster, but none of it should be labored, and there should not be a specific place to which you can point and say, "There was where I really noticed the conscious increase in effort." The real trick is to stay slow longer than you think is necessary. Each stage of pace increase should almost have you feeling antsy to progress to the next because it feels as though you've waited too long to start going faster.

"When you follow your bliss, doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn't be a door for anyone else." - Joseph Campbell

The feeling you should get is basically the same as one of those planned easy runs that somehow spontaneously morphs into a notably fast, unforgettable high because you have no plans to push and you don't rush into a faster pace. The magic just seems to appear at some point in the run. Ideally, that's what you're after on a progression run. You have to have some baseline fitness to get this feeling, and that might mean spending some time in the hurt box on an occasional run until you are fit, but threshold running should for the most part be enjoyable. It's euphoric to feel simultaneously relaxed and invincible. Holding onto this euphoria at the fastest possible pace, not wanting the run to end, is more beneficial (and certainly more enjoyable) than fighting against your body in a "no pain, no gain" fashion.

The fast, steady, "high-end" pace of a progression run is the principal active ingredient in the outing. But it is also fine to occasionally go ahead and "release the hounds" as I call it - hammering it for a few minutes at the end - if it feels right. If you do this correctly, you'll be absolutely flying and well above (faster than) your "threshold," but you won't be spending enough time at this effort intensity to show all your cards as you would in a race. If you are currently in shape to run 5,000m in 15:00, for example, you can start a progression run at 10:00 per mile and be at 8:30 pace after 7-10 minutes, 7:00 pace after 15-20 minutes, and so on until you're cruising along at your high-end pace (circa 5:20 per mile) by the time you're 35-40 minutes into the run. Keep it there on cruise control for another 15-25 minutes (as long as you are not straining), then smoothly tighten the screws for a final few minutes, squeezing the velocity down to 2-mile race pace or faster for the last 30-60 seconds. While this finish feels hard (and can be brutal if you unwisely force the pace), the fast but steady portion of the run should not be any trouble. Strong, purposeful and aerobically challenging, yes. Labored, no.

Try it that way. Let it start easy and stay easy until it feels right to pick it up. Do not pick it up all of a sudden, but make a minor increase and let breathing, heart rate, coordination of movement, et cetera all perceptually stabilize before smoothly and gently flowing into another pace pickup. The goal is to continue this process until you lock into the fastest pace that feels strong, smooth and controlled, one that will relax and train a runner (you) but kill a jogger (someone a few seconds per mile slower than you!). Hold that pace until you sense it is about to require some laboring, then either stop there or (if you are in an "I'm running to the barn" mood) gradually press the pedal toward the floor for about three minutes, finishing in a kick that leaves you not wiped out, but feeling so energized that you could conquer the world!

This obviously describes an ideal progression run. These efforts can derail just as often as they flow hitch-free. You might encounter some wind or hills or turns that break the magic spell, or you might get overeager or just suddenly hit a bad patch and run out of the zone for no apparent reason. Most of the time, rather than the wheels coming totally off, some pace or effort adjustments can get you back in the groove if you feel it slipping away from you. The perfect run, in which you don't need to make even the most minor mid-course corrections, is rare. But by becoming more and more sensitive to your body's feedback signals, you can learn to perceive when those minor regulations are needed even before a bad patch arrives, thereby avoiding strain and preserving the desired steady state of effort.

Objective methods of determining effort

If you can't find your ideal high-end pace by feel, the best available method for keeping effort intensity in the desired range is to use blood lactate data (correlated with heart rate data) to find your safe zone and go with the HR data on workouts until you know exactly what the feeling should be. A somewhat cruder field test involves performing a continuous run with pace increases at predetermined intervals, measuring heart rate at the end of each segment, and plotting a graph of HR vs. pace (or time spent running) to look for the point at which the HR no longer increased in a linear fashion. The popular "Conconi test" is such a protocol. It has a few drawbacks, but can be used in a pinch if you are desperate for numerical data.

If no physical data are available, you may use pace guidelines as "neighborhood" values. If you are a 13:00 5,000m runner, your maximum steady state of effort will likely occur at around 4:35 per mile (91%-92% of 5,000m PR pace), assuming the external conditions are similar to those during your PR race performance, assuming you are in racing shape at the moment and feel capable of a PR effort on the day, and assuming you are just as capable over longer distances as you are at 5,000m. See why pace guidelines are less predictable than perceived effort as a protocol for workouts? If you insist on use of a pace chart for determining training speeds, it is best if you use several recent race performances as indicators rather than relying on a single all- time best effort. To continue, a runner whose recent performances average 14:00 for 5,000m (equivalent to about 29:18 for 10,000m) usually sports a "threshold" pace of near 4:56 per mile, a 15:00 5K (31:28-ish 10K) runner would aim for roughly 5:17 per mile as a strong high-end effort, 16:00 (33:40) runners would target about 5:38 pace, and so on. Again, if you use pace charts, you make the assumption that you are structurally and aerobically comfortable enough at the indicated "threshold" pace to sustain it long enough to achieve a training benefit while avoiding excessive distress. In any event, you must experiment with various speeds in training until you can find the desired effort intensity.

The format of a progression run assists you in finding the limit of your comfort zone. It also allows you to "bail out" and keep the run easy throughout if you feel that a quicker pace would be a bad idea due to excessive fatigue or incipient injury. The fact that you start slowly and rarely run outside of your "controlled" zone means that you can spend some time in that high-end state a few days in a row if the magic appears, as long as you know your recovery capacities well. Another benefit of progression runs is that since they are almost entirely effort-based, they are automatically tailored to suit your strengths (e.g., muscle fiber composition, current acquired fitness, etc.) while working peripherally on your weaknesses, provided you usually run them to your ideal effort and no one else's. Of course, they can be done with one or more partners on occasion to assist in locking in to the collective energy of the group and relieving some of the normal burden of making your own pace, but be careful to avoid racing these workouts too often.

It is important to do a fair portion of your progression runs on roads if you are going to be racing on the roads. Shifting from training on the grass, trails or track to racing on the more unforgiving surface of the road can lead to a lot more leg muscle stress, especially if hills or sharp turns are involved. At the least, this can cause you to struggle sooner than you would on a fast track. At worst, it can lead to injury. You also need to practice high-end running in somewhat hillier terrain from time to time, so you can get the feel for how the varied exertion should be meted out. At the same time, one of the most important aspects of high-end training is even effort, and the track is probably the best place to get those consistent foot strikes which lead to that "floating" rhythm. So you should balance your faster efforts - some on the track and some on the road.

Resist the impulse to turn every progression run into a time trial. Just run enough under control during most of it that you are able to pick up the last few minutes without fighting yourself. With enough overall mileage, this "train, don't strain" approach will pay off over time.

Well-conditioned runners often have the experience of having a high-end effort interrupted by a too-soon increase in pace and (upon recognizing the warning signals in time) slowing just briefly to recover, only to return effortlessly to that "too fast" pace and find it no more difficult than the high-end pace they had been running previously. This phenomenon is common and, once you experience it a few times, you can actually do it by design to amplify that "full of run" feeling and find a faster pace with less distress. As you get fitter, it often takes less time to warm up enough to find the feeling. When you reach this stage of fitness, you can do a short progression-style warmup (12-20 minutes) followed by a few minutes rest (maybe stretch lightly), then run for about two minutes at a little stronger effort (perhaps at current 8K-10K race pace), rest another couple of minutes, then begin a planned tempo run. If you are at a stage of fitness and at a stable running weight where everything is "clicking" for you, these tempo runs can feel euphoric and are very cost-effective training devices which serve a number of purposes that translate into good racing down the road.

This done-by-feel running should comprise most of the faster training during an off-season period of general conditioning, in which fitness is allowed to develop at a comfortable rate. During a subsequent period of more specialized conditioning, the fast sessions are geared more toward target race pace, and intensity (as well as the frequency of the faster work) is increased in stages over the ensuing weeks (allowing a suitable taper period) with respect to the time remaining until the target races.

Laboratory research only confirms some of our intuitive concepts. For example, many physiologists recommend a continuous run of 20 minutes at the "lactate threshold." As it turns out, 18-22 minutes spent at the theoretical LT pace (which is a nebulous definition in any event) during most graded exercise test protocols will result in an adequately-trained runner exceeding the LT and hitting the respiratory compensation point, producing extreme hyperventilation. Knowing this as a specific scientific principle only justifies the general common-sense idea of keeping most "tempo" runs from becoming too anaerobic for regular use. For the self-made runner who has experienced the magic and operates by zoning in to "cruise control" speed, this means preserving that energized, free-spirited, weightless sensation of strong, on-the-brink running.

Having the head knowledge without the experience and wisdom, however, can lead to following strict pace guidelines with insufficient attention paid to other important potential benefits of the desired training. Those aforementioned physiologists, as a case in point, may fail to remember that their test subject's "LT pace" was determined by a laboratory protocol which not only controlled the temperature and other external conditions, but also began the treadmill speed at a walking pace and allowed the athlete's physical markers (HR, respiratory rate, etc.) to stabilize at each stage before the workload was increased for another stage. In order to effectively use the physiologist's pace and duration recommendations, then, the runner must duplicate the conditions of the laboratory test (and must go into a session with the same degree of freshness each time). This is usually impractical in the real world, where the test LT pace is replaced by LT pace du jour.

Add to this the fact that the average physiologist does not have a clue what the magic of threshold running should actually feel like, how frequently threshold sessions can be performed, or how they interact with other workouts, and you have the makings of a one-dimensional, "cookie-cutter" training program. Such a scheme will work for the one runner out of 50 whose by-feel pace happens to match up with the by-chart pace assigned to him for that day. But it will not be quite as effective for the 49 other runners who blindly adhere to the cut-and-paste schedules they obtain from their most recent books or magazines.

Frequency of high-end running

There is a point at which you optimally build fitness; if you go beyond that point very often, you begin giving some of it away. Your ideal frequency of threshold running (as well as your ideal mileage) simply depends on how often you can do it comfortably without needing a very slow recovery day (or series of recovery days). But it should also be regulated according to a few general rules:

1) Your age / running experience

2) Time of year (base training or competitive season)

3) Your long-term goals or lack thereof (also influenced by age)

Trial and error indicates that actually hitting that high-end pace more than three times per week will expedite your fitness at a small cost to long-term development (this is also dependent upon how much higher-intensity work is being done concurrently). The take-home message in this is that if you are a newcomer to the sport or if you are younger than your prime racing years (25-35 years old for most long distance runners), you will be better served (at least from a statistical standpoint - obviously not everyone responds in exactly the same manner) by including more easy running in your base training regimen. If you are an older, experienced runner who is in (or past) your prime, you may be better served by running at least a portion of your runs near your maximum steady state more often (4-6 times per week). If you are a high school or college runner who wants high school or college glory but doesn't plan to go a whole lot farther in the sport after those years, you will also probably be better off touching on your high-end pace four or more days per week during a base stage, as long as you have done enough preparatory running to be ready for it.

"The drops of rain make a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling." - Lucretius

Consistency in running is as vital a contributor to success as any other attitude-driven constituent of your preparation. Anyone can achieve personal improvement with steadily increasing mileage and more consistent and intelligent high-end running. Of course, each individual possesses different qualities which may impose physical limitations, so you have to experiment to find the right mileage and the right amount of threshold running for your current tolerance, body weight, and state of development. But the involved principles are universal; they work across the board. If you keep safely and steadily trying to push the boundaries out as the years go by, you may have some inevitable setbacks during the discovery process, but you will find what's right and you will continue to make an overall improvement for years to come.

John Kellogg has logged over 70,000 miles in 28 years of running, with a highest week of 156 miles. He has experimented with as many combinations of training procedures as is possible in the course of a human running career while still devoting enough time to each mixture of techniques to ascertain their effectiveness. While he never reached the elite level himself, he was able to train himself effectively enough to run 14:22 for 5,000 meters while possessing a best time of only 57 seconds for 400 meters. John also has a Cross-Country 10,000 meters best of 30:46, and was nationally-ranked in the marathon as a Junior (under age 20).

He has trained in America and in Europe with runners of all ages, abilities, and nationalities, including world-class athletes, and has coached runners of all ages for 15 years, producing results at the state-class and national-class.

LetsRun.com co-founder Weldon Johnson trained under Mr. Kellogg's guidance in middle and high school and credits his return to Mr. Kellogg's training with his huge post-collegiate improvements. A 4:29 high school 1600m runner in high school, 30:14 10,000 meter runner in college, Weldon has run 28:06 for 10k, has finished 4th at USA Nationals twice at 10k.

When Weldon was a 29:49 10k runner, he then said John Kellogg was the best running coach out there. He still believes that today and we believe Weldon's results support this contention. One of the reasons this website was started was to spread the training philosophies of John Kellogg.

John Kellogg now lives in Ithaca, NY with site founders Weldon and Robert Johnson and plays an integral role in the success of Robert Johnson's Cornell cross country and track teams, which in three years have gone from being an afterthought to one of the best mid distance teams on the East Coast. This year Cornell was 3rd at Penn Relays in the DMR (behind Michigan and Arkansas), 5th in the 4*Mile, and had the fastest time in the NCAAs indoors in the 4*800.

John Kellogg's most recent articles include "This Low-Volume Rubbish", "Maximizing Oxygen Uptake", and one of our favorites, "How I Became a Guide"

John Kellogg formerly operated a website, we hope to have it up again soon. If you'd like to read JK's 4 training principles click here

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