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BUILDING YOUR FIRE
"He threw several large branches on top of the snow. This served for a foundation and prevented the young flame from dying in the wet snow. He made a flame by touching a match to a small piece of tree bark that he took from his pocket. This burned even better than paper. Placing it on the foundation, he fed the young flame with pieces of dry grass and with the smallest dry sticks."
(1) London, Jack. "To Build a Fire."1902.
(2) Sandrock, Michael. Running with the Legends. 1996.
A great example of this is the American marathoner Bill Rodgers. When Rodgers decided to get serious about his training (after drifting about aimlessly after college), he began with a daily 10-mile run around 7-minute pace, and did this for an entire year. (2). No hard workouts, no races. Rodgers wisely practiced patience before jumping into any races, and it would be another year before he started any hard workouts, after joining the Greater Boston Track Club. By then he had doubled his volume of mileage, upwards of 140 - 170 per week. Granted, Rodgers was gifted with superb natural ability and biomechanics, but nonetheless, he demonstrated what patience and discipline can do for a runner. When he finally lit a flame, his fire burned bright for many years: he won 12 major marathons and 30 major road races. Incidentally, Rodgers also lit a flame under the entire country, and, along with Frank Shorter, was a major catalyst of the first running boom in America.
One of my favorite short stories of all time is by Jack London. In the story, called “To Build a Fire,” the main character gets lost in the Yukon in the middle of winter. (1).
Note that the main character, even in his desperate state, thinks ahead by using large branches to serve as a “foundation” for his fire. Similarly, training is most effective when we think long-term, not short-term. We may have short-term goals, but they will serve best as building blocks towards long-term ones. The foundation for our training is our bread-and-butter easy running, day in and day out, and our physical strength exercises. For the character in London’s story, it’s the fuel to which he applies his “young flame” that will burn slowly and steadily for a longer period of time. For a runner, this foundation can consist of anywhere from several days to several years. A runner should consider his or her goals and build a foundation accordingly, keeping in mind this rule of thumb: the bigger the foundation, the longer the fire will burn.
Night falls, and with temperatures dipping to -75 degrees F it becomes startlingly clear that he’s in trouble. He’s down to just three matches, and his only chance of survival is to successfully build, and maintain, a fire. London writes:
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Coach Plummer has guided both sprinters and distance runners in their training. He runs competitively for the Central Park Track Club and trains year-round for road races, indoor and outdoor track, and cross-country. He is also a USA Track and Field Level 1 certified coach.
How, then, should a runner go about building a foundation? Should we do what Rodgers did, and try to run 10 miles a day? Or perhaps start at 5 miles and work up to 10? When I was a Boy Scout, we learned that a fire depended on two things: oxygen and fuel. There were various ways of building a fire, which always started with setting up a foundation before applying a flame: there was the teepee, the log cabin, and the lean-to. Each of these structures was unique in its formation, yet adhered to the same fundamental principles of creating an isolated space where oxygen could be harnessed and then burned in an efficient way. It always came back to oxygen + fuel. Prior to these lessons, we’d been using a handful of sticks and lighter fluid. But after them, we built long-lasting fires that burned through the night and required minimal maintenance once they got going.
Building an aerobic foundation is the same way; like the teepee or log cabin, there are multiple ways to do it--cross-training, doubling, a long run once or twice a week--but it should be individualized based on the runner’s background, age, ability, and time constraints. Regardless of the structure, the principles are the same: a focus on volume and nothing too stressful. You’re just laying the logs down, one by one, in a manner that will enable them to burn long and efficiently. The objective during this period should be an accumulation of miles and a progression in the volume of “steady state” or tempo runs done at a medium effort. So, for example, a runner might start at 20 minutes and work up to 40 or 45 minutes at this medium effort over several weeks. He might add 5 minutes per week, or break it up into 10 minute segments. It doesn’t matter much, as long as the progression is there.
Lastly, in addition to the all-important aerobic foundation, a runner mustn't forget to also build a speed foundation. This consists of lots of strides, short hill sprints, and plyometric exercises like box-jumps, burpees, and jump-rope. This will activate a runner’s fast-twitch fibers, keep running form efficient, and prepare the body for the longer speed work to come.
What happens if we start workouts at a high level of stress? Well, that’s like lighting the match. Once you apply a flame to your foundation, your fuel starts to burn. This is when the key principles shift to timing and momentum, and it is the subject of my next blog post. Until then, happy running.
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