Running is a gloriously democratic and accessible sport. All you need is a pair of shoes and the will to start moving your legs. It’s so seemingly simple, that you may never think to figure out how you might get better at it — you just follow what your peers may be doing (who may not know anything more than you do), or pick up tips that percolate through social media (which may not be accurate), or 100% wing it, just vaguely trying to get a little faster each time you run.
My guest says that, rather than taking a willy-nilly approach to your recreational running, you can greatly improve your performance by learning from the professionals who actually run for a living.
His name is Matt Fitzgerald and he’s a sports writer, a running coach, and the co-author of Run Like a Pro (Even If You’re Slow): Elite Tools and Tips for Runners at Every Level. Today on the show Matt translates the best practices of elite runners into tactics the amateur can incorporate into their training, beginning with why you need to follow a well-programmed running plan, how to find the sweet spot for your running volume — including why you actually should concentrate more on the amount of time you run rather than the miles — and the number of hours Matt recommends trying to work up to running each week if you’d like to really see what you can do as a runner. We then discuss the ratio of low intensity to high intensity workouts you should be doing, the surprisingly small emphasis pros put on running form, what the pros know about what works best for recovery, and the edge you can get through cross-training. We end our conversation with the difference in mindset that marks elite runners, including how they’re probably better quitters than you are.
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of of the Art of Manliness podcast. Running is a gloriously democratic and accessible sport. All you need is a pair of shoes and the will to start moving your legs. It’s so seemingly simple that you may never think to figure out how you might get better at it. You just follow what your peers may be doing, who may not know anything more than you do, or pick up tips that percolate through social media, which may not be accurate, or 100% wing it. Just vaguely trying to get a little faster each time you run. My guest says that rather than taking a willy-nilly approach to your recreational running, you can greatly improve your performance by learning from the professionals who actually run for a living. His name is Matt Fitzgerald, he’s a sports writer, a running coach, and the co-author of Run Like a Pro, Even If You’re Slow: Elite Tools and Tips for Runners At Every Level.
Today on the show, Matt translates the best practices of elite runners, the tactics the amateur can incorporate into their training, why I need to follow a well programmed running plan, how to find the sweet spot for your running volume, including why you should actually concentrate more on the amount of time you run, rather than the miles and the number of hours Matt recommends trying to work up to running each week, if you’d like to really see what you can do as a runner. We then discuss the ratio of low intensity to high intensity workouts you should be doing, the surprisingly small emphasis pros put on running form, what the pros know about what works best for recovery, and the edge you can get through cross-training. We end our conversation with a difference in mindset that marks elite runners, including how they’re probably better quitters than you are. After show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/run.
Matt Fitzgerald, welcome back to the show.
Matt Fitzgerald: Great to be back.
Brett McKay: So, you have been a runner pretty much all your life, you’ve also written about running extensively, as a journalist, you’ve written several books about running, you’ve become a coach, you got certified nutrition to help runners. So basically, you know a lot about running, you’ve made it your life’s work, in a way. So why did you decide to go live with a bunch of professional runners in 2017? What did you see lacking in your own running performance, that you thought you could probably fill in those gaps by hanging out with a bunch of pro-runners?
Matt Fitzgerald:The first thing is that, I think athletes in pretty much any sport fantasize about going pro at some point, especially if you discover your sport young. I started running when I was 11, and I wasn’t the most gifted runner, so I figured out pretty quickly, I wasn’t going to the Olympics. But still, I dreamed about it, how cool it would be to have a pro shoe contract and travel around the world, racing for a living. Didn’t work out that way, but then, so when I got deep into my career as an endurance sports writer and coach, I have an interesting experience where I have sort of one foot in the recreational world, almost all the athletes I coach and write for, are recreational-level competitive, but amateur. And then, I do a lot of my learning from the elites, and I noticed that most of recreational runners kind of have no idea what the elites actually do, and because they don’t know, they’re not doing it themselves.
And, I’ve always been a big believer in kind of what I call a best practices approach to developing in any sport, including endurance sports. So, when I was 45, about to turn 46, I just got this idea into my head, to guinea pig myself, to kind of put my money where my mouth was and prove, as this 46-year-old above average, but still amateur runner that, by fully immersing myself in these elite best practices, just completely living their entire lifestyle, that I could benefit from it, and just I wanted to show that you don’t have to be born with elite genetics to benefit from emulating the top performers.
Brett McKay: So what happened with your experience? There was a race you did that kind of showed that, “Okay, what I did, worked.”?
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah, so I spent 13 weeks with the HOKA Northern Arizona Elite Professional Running Team in Flagstaff, Arizona. So that was like a complete marathon training cycle, and at the end of that build-up, I ran the Chicago marathon. Interestingly, the agent for the team, a guy named Josh Cox, he pulled some strings and got me a professional bib. So, I had a two-digit number, I got to start. Chicago marathon is like 40,000 runners, and I got to start in row 3, within touching distance of the guy and the girl who ended up winning the race. I did not, but I did undergo an astonishing transformation. Now, I aged in reverse, I ran my fastest marathon ever. It was about my 40th or 41st marathon, and I beat a time that I thought I would never have come anywhere close to again, improved by two minutes; a time I had set nine years before and hadn’t gotten within nine minutes of since. So to say that I proved what I set out to prove is, an understatement. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Right, now, that’s impressive. So as you said, you’ve kind of had your feet in two worlds. You’ve had it in the pro world, where you’re writing about these pro runners, but also you’re coaching amateur runners, and what you’ve done with your book, Run Like a Pro, Even If You’re Slow, is show amateur runners the principles that elite runners use, to perform at their best, that they’re just as applicable to amateur runners. But before we get to some of these principles, let’s talk about the differences you’ve seen between pro runners and amateur runners and how they approach running. So, what are the differences? An amateur runner, what are they doing differently than what pro-runners are doing?
Matt Fitzgerald: The first thing that anyone would think of is, running a lot less. So, that’s obvious, but I guess the thing I would say… That’s a good opportunity to mention that when I say that everyone should train like the elites, I don’t mean that you should not just train, but kind of practice all the same methodologies as the elites. I don’t mean that you should literally match them in every detail. The typical elite runner runs 120-130 miles per week. That would destroy most people. So, it’s not that sort of literal monkey-see monkey do I’m talking about, but emulating the underlying principles. So, the principle behind volume for the elites is they find the maximum… The amount of running that benefits their fitness maximally. So, just before they get to that point of not diminishing returns but negative returns. And they… So they find that limit and then they set just one step on the safe side of it. Most… Even though most recreational runners couldn’t run as much as the elites, they also don’t run as much as they themselves could benefit from doing. And because they typically just think, “Oh, well, you know, I’m slow. What’s the point?” So that’s an obvious one.
Some of the stuff that’s, I guess, less obvious, like even some of the stuff that I myself, as a very serious and experienced competitive runner, wasn’t really doing before I got the flag-staff, just kind of like, more complex, well thought out warm-ups. I would just work at my desk for three hours, get up, lace up my shoes, get out the door, start running. A pro runner is more likely to get up from the desk, change into their running gear, and then do some activation exercises to just wore your lunges and stuff to kinda wake up their body and get it ready to move. Then, they would do a little bit of jogging. Then, they would probably do a more dynamic warm-up, like some drills and some short accelerations. And then, they would get into the meat of their workout. So just, it’s… I get it. Most people, they feel like, “Oh, man, I barely have time for the running. I gotta do all that other stuff.” But, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and when I started doing all these other little ancillary things that I had been cutting corners on before, I improved.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, that was one of the big take. We’ll talk about this too, that just how not hard pro runners go. I think a lot of amateur runners, at least when I’ve done running, when I’ve prepared for like a 5k or like an obstacle race, I just… My approach to running is, “I’m just gonna go as hard as I can, and I’m gonna just be huffing and puffing.” And pro runners don’t really do that. They actually take it pretty easy.
Matt Fitzgerald: Yes. About 80% of the time, yeah. That honestly, is probably the most costly discrepancy in how amateur runners train, compared to the pros. So, I call it the “moderate-intensity rut”, where pretty much every run that the typical recreational runner does, is not really easy, not… It’s not at a physiologically low intensity, but it’s also not that hard either. Because think about it, if you’re going medium-hard every day, you don’t have anything left to go really hard. And so… Whereas the typical recreational runner’s caught in this moderate-intensity rut. For the elite runners, their training is more polarized in intensity where their easy days are really easy and their hard days are really hard, and there’s not all that much in the middle.
Brett McKay: Okay, we’ll get back to volume and intensity here in a bit, but I wanna start digging in more into specifics that amateur runners can learn from the pros by starting with why you say even recreational runners need a credibly-sourced running plan. And you’ve got lots of plans in your book. Because I think a lot of folks, I think when they start running, they just sort of run to gain some sort of general fitness. They might vaguely try to get faster each time. And you can get fit enough to finish a 5K race that way. But, if you really wanna improve your performance, you wanna do well, you argue that you have to have a specific training plan for the specific distance of race you’re gonna run. Because you don’t just wanna get generally fit, you wanna time your progression with your training, so that you’re peaking around race time, so you can perform your best when it really counts, right?
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah, exactly so. I think a lot of people, they come to running from a background in general fitness. And in that domain, you have this sort of “get fit, stay fit” mentality, right? Sort of like you get off the couch, you get a gym membership, you start working out, and eventually, you start getting the results you want, and then you just try to maintain them, right? That’s actually very different from what you’re trying to do in competitive running, where you’re actually… Peak fitness is not a sustainable state. If you really want to be at your best for one competition, in the lead up to it, you need to build up to a level of training that… They refer to it as “functional overreaching” where you’re still benefiting from it, but if you kept doing it, you would crash. [chuckle] And then… So, the idea is to time that functional overreaching period, so that you taper right after that. So you build up to that peak, it’s not sustainable, but that’s okay because you’re not trying to sustain it. Then, for one to three weeks, you bring it down and then you’re really fit and you’re really fresh, you compete, and then you need a break. And then you need time off before you can start a fresh build up. Again, that’s… With that timing element and the specificity of the kind of fitness you’re trying to build, winging it, it’s just very unlikely to get you there, or even a plan built by someone who doesn’t know a lot about running.
Brett McKay: Well, hey, yeah, that’s an important point. The planning that goes on, it… Pro runners not only plan their running. They actually, they plan in, like what you’ve been callin’ “deload weeks” where they’re just taking time off so that they can recover and continue the training. And I think a lot of amateurs don’t do that.
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah. Yes, ’cause what you’re really doing is, moments of unsustainable workloads all along the way, right? So if you try to train a little bit harder each week than the week before, you’re only gonna be able to keep doing that even if you’re young and fit and durable, for maybe eight weeks tops, before you hit a wall. But if you do take sort of a three steps forward, one voluntary intentional plan, step-back approach, then you can actually attain a higher eventual peak workload, without breaking down.
Brett McKay: Okay, so I guess the principle there; plan things out and also expect this to take months. It’s not gonna just be like… You can’t just train from work out to work out. You have to think, weeks, even months in advance. I think it’s the bit… I think it might be a hard shift for amateur runners to make, because it’s not very rewarding. Honestly, they’ll be like, “Wow, man, I’m gonna do… I’m gonna run slower than I usually do? Like, what?” [chuckle] But, you gotta keep that long-term perspective in your view.
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah. It’s worth it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so you mentioned that one thing the pros do differently from amateurs is that, they just run a lot more. The median is like 120 miles a week. What about the average Joe? How much should they be running? I’m guessing, it depends on their personal circumstances, right?
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah, because I use this phrase in the book, Your Mileage Sweet Spot. So that’s the underlying principle is that… And this is my co-author on this book, Ben Rosario, the coach of the professional team I trained with in 2017. He makes this point. He gives examples of specific individual runners on his team. There’s one who goes all the way up to 140 miles some weeks, and then there’s another runner on the same team, who competes in some of the same events, who’ve only run 65 to 70 miles per week, so about half, and it’s because one of the runners is very durable and the other one isn’t, but they’re both… Granted, 65 or 70 miles a week is still plenty, but the underlying principle, the thing that they’re both doing, even though the numbers belie is, they have both found their mileage sweet spot and I hinted at what that really is, earlier in our conversation. Tt’s the volume of running that is associated with your maximal returns. So, at some point, you get diminishing returns all along the way.
So that’s what I’m talking about. If you go from 10 to 20 miles per week, you’re gonna get much more return than if you go from 20 to 30, and if you go from 30 to 40, you’re gonna get less return than you would before. So, the returns are diminishing all along the way, but they’re still positive, you’re still getting fitter, so the sweet spot comes just before the level where you actually start to get worse by adding more mileage. You’re just breaking yourself down and piling fatigue on your body, and that… It’s a little bit of a moving target because it takes… They call it training to train, it takes some time to develop the infrastructure in your body, to be able to handle your lifetime sweet spot of volume, and it’s so individual that it’s a little bit of an experiment. It’s a structured experiment, you’re not just putting yourself through the meat grinder, but you don’t really know what your sweet spot is going to be, until you discover it.
Brett McKay: How do you know when an athlete is figured out their sweet spot?
Matt Fitzgerald: The most common way is, breaking down, actually. Either getting injured or just becoming… Going from functional to non-functional over-reaching, where you just… You can feel yourself getting less fit even though you’re running more. So it sounds like it’s, “Okay, well, you have to just push them off the cliff.” Well, kinda, yeah, but you’re not really going off a cliff. It’s not the end of the world if you over-cook yourself a couple of times in training because there’s a lot of value in it. It’s like, “Okay, well, there’s my limit.” Ben actually, he tries to be a little more conservative because he’s training people whose livelihood depends on staying healthy and fit, so he just tends to be pretty conservative, and he’ll gradually bring athletes along in that process, and he’ll often kind of cap their mileage when… Before they go off the cliff, but it just seems like, “Hey, you’re winning races, so why… It ain’t broke so let’s not fix it.” So that’s another way, when you just… If you’ve gone through the process and you’re running a lot more than you were at the beginning, and you’re feeling great and you’re performing well and you’re happy with your results, you can just sort of hang out there and spare yourself learning the hard way, what your limit is.
Brett McKay: One thing I thought was an interesting tidbit from the book on volume and how much you should run, you make the suggestion as well as Ben, that when you’re first starting out, not to make mileage a goal, instead just make time your goal. Why do you think it’s better to focus on time and not mileage?
Matt Fitzgerald: It’s really because your body doesn’t adapts to exposure to mileage. It adapts to exposure to time. And so, time… When you measured by time, it’s a great equalizer. If I had… If I were leading a workout for a group of 20 runners of all different fitness levels and I wanted them to have an equal challenge, I would make… I could do so by making the work-out time-based versus distance-based, to get concrete. For example, most people listening probably are familiar with the concept of VO2 max, which is an exercise intensity associated with your maximal breathing rate when your muscles are consuming oxygen as fast as they possibly can. So, not a full sprint, but a very high… The highest sustainable intensity of exercise.
Now, whether you are very, very moderately fit or you are an elite runner, you can probably sustain the pace associated with your VO2 max for about six minutes. So obviously, that pace will be a lot faster for an elite runner, but it’s still… That’s an intensity, you can sustain for about six minutes, whether you’re not that fit or you’re extremely fit. So when you’re looking at… Well, if you wanna develop your VO2 max by exposing yourself to that intensity and training, it makes sense to make it time-based, because no matter how fit you are, you can be confident that it’s an appropriate challenge level for you. And same thing goes when you’re looking at just how much running can your body handle. Take the runner… The elite, doing 120 miles per week. Well, that’s only about 12 hours of running. And so, if you’re a much slower runner, 12 hours of running for you, might actually be doable in a week, but you’re only gonna cover maybe 70 miles in that time, versus 120.
Brett McKay: So you give this great example, saying that you’re starting out. You’re like, “I wanna get into running, using this time-based approach,” what would a training schedule look like, would it be just like, would you schedule an hour, hour-long blocks?
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah, if you’re a raw beginner, let’s just say you’ve been doing some exercise, but no running, because of the high impact nature of running, injury risk is sky high in those first steps, and so I’m very cautious with that. It’s sort of like an inoculation, those first few runs you do, so I would have people, as many, especially if they’re overweight or older, I might have them start with walk runs, so run a minute, walk four minutes, run a minute walk four minutes, do that for 30 minutes, and then I would also have people… Now, some people, they can skip that step, they can go ahead and just run for 30 minutes, but even if you’re one of those people, I would not have you run again for 48 hours, ’cause your body needs time to absorb all that stress and then remodel the affected tissues, the bones, the muscles, the connective tissues, and just actually emerge stronger, so give yourself 48 hours before you expose yourself to another dose of repetitive impact, and then just go from there. It’s just, it’s step by step, give yourself at least 10 days at a certain level of running and see if you can handle it, and that sort of earns you the right to take the next step.
Eventually, you can get to the point where you can start running on consecutive days, again, where that threshold is, depends on your starting point and how you seem to be absorbing the progression. The thing that I recommend that everyone, anyone who has ambitions of just seeing what they can do as a runner, I give them sort of like an initial target of seven hours, like try, no matter how long it takes, no matter where your starting point is, try to see if you can get up to seven hours of running per week, which is… It’s about an hour per day, every day, you can do a lot with that amount of running, you can achieve most goals that most amateur runners would want to achieve for themselves, and it’s a commitment, but most people can also fit that into their lifestyles.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think that the time approach is really a lot more… ‘Cause I think the mileage thing can get really debilitating for people, and exhaustion just cause them to just run themselves in the ground, I think, and like you said, that’s where a lot of the injuries, ’cause you’re trying to like, “Oh, I gotta get 20 miles this week.” Well, no, maybe not, maybe you just, and as long as you get seven hours, then you’re good.
Matt Fitzgerald: Yes, yeah, yeah, it makes a lot of sense. Yeah, it makes it seem less daunting for sure.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Let’s talk about the speed, ’cause we were talking about, okay, you do all this volume often times they’re doing it at a very low intensity, but they’re not just doing low-intensity work, there’s also, they’re mixing in high intensity work, but generally like, okay, how do elite runners figure out what is low intensity from them, like hard to go, because I’ve read different things about that, there’s that whole the heart rate model you use like, Well, you’re… You do 180 minus your age, and then you do like 70% of that, are elite runners doing that or are they doing something different?
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah, they’re doing something different. There’s been a coalescing around this concept of the first ventilatory threshold, which is most exercise scientists now consider that the proper dividing line between low intensity and moderate intensity for the typical runner at fall somewhere between 77% and 81% of their individual maximum heart rate, and that’s a number that varies a lot, so you can’t use… You can’t use a formula for it. Conveniently, that threshold, what happens there, and the reason it’s important is that if you’re just below that threshold, it’s actually a lot less stressful on your body than if you’re just above it, that’s why it is a true threshold. And there’s a spike in the breathing rate that occurs there, it’s not hyper-ventilation, you’re not even conscious of it, you would have to just be breathing into a mask that collects your exhaled gases to know where that threshold actually lies. But the reason is that it’s important is that if you go from just below it to just above it, your brain has to start recruiting different types of muscle fibers in order to keep up with the demand that your muscles are putting on it, and it’s just…
It’s sort of like, it’s almost literally like flipping a switch, and so it just… It makes it more stressful to your autonomic nervous system, so it takes a little bit longer to recover from, which is fine if you do that once, but if you do it habitually, then you’re creating this chronic burden of, never fully process fatigue. It just kind of stops you from getting all you can, all the benefit you ought to be getting from the running you’re doing the convenient thing is that that threshold aligns with the fastest running pace at which you can carry on a conversation comfortably. And so, one advantage that elite runners have in that regard is that they can run pretty darn fast in absolute terms and still be below that threshold just because they’re so fit, and most elite runners, the team I trained with, they train in groups, and they actually are having conversations when they’re doing their low intensity runs, so that’s what they do, they just go out there, most of them are not wearing heart rate monitors, they’re barely even paying attention to their pace, they’re just jogging along comfortably, having a conversation, and it gets the job done without really much fussing about the objective numbers.
Brett McKay: Okay, so most of the training is just below this threshold, and if you can have a conversation, you’re probably good, but runners also have to do some high intensity work because you wanna be able to practice for that kick at the end, right? If you’re running a marathon, usually you’re running harder at the end, so you can… If you need to beat someone, you can… How do elite runners incorporate high intensity training if they’re doing most of the work with low intensity volume?
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah, it’s really… You know the simplest way to think about it is in terms of like on a per session basis or per run basis, so the typical elite runner is running usually 13 times per week, so twice a day, six days, and then one easy run on the “rest day”. And of those 13 runs, usually three involve are sort of focused on more intense efforts, so it’s about one out of every three runs set aside for harder work, and that ratio works pretty well no matter what you’re running frequency is, so if you run three times a week, one run should be high intensity, if you run six times a week, two should be, and so on, so that’s really the way they approach it, and it’s like they train in micro-cycles that have a recurring structure, so they just get in a nice rhythm with their training, it’s one or two easy days, then a hard day, one or two easy days, hard day, and so it becomes very predictable, they know what their body can handle, they work hard on the hard days, but they have the time to regenerate between hard days and it works.
Brett McKay: On those high-intensity days that they’re trying to reach certain speed, heart rate, what are they… What’s the goal there, usually?
Matt Fitzgerald: There’s a great variety of… Yeah, because really… So when I say higher intensities, I’m really talking about everything in that kind of moderate to maximal range, which is a very broad range. There’s a lot you can do there, so it’s not all one type of workout. So I was training for a marathon with that group, as were most of the real pros on the team. So marathon pace for them, for the male runners, you’re talking about two hours and 10 minutes is their marathon pace and for the women, 2:25 to 2:30. So that’s not a high-intensity, that’s a moderate-intensity, a pace you could sustain for more than two hours. And so there was a fair amount of work, that would be sort of like… That’s not an easy run either, though. So when we did marathon pace workouts, it would be like a fairly high volume of work at that somewhat aggressive pace.
And then other days would be much, much more intense than that, so short blasts of speed with active or passive recoveries between them. And then sort of in between those, you would have some longer intervals like fast but not quite that fast. And then tempo runs, which are faster than marathon pace, but maybe slower than 5K or 10K pace. And so there’s just quite a bit of variety, and so I practically did not ever do the same workout twice during the 13 weeks I was there. ‘Cause it’s like well, if you’ve already done it, let’s not do it again. Let’s progress from there. And generally, what you’re trying to do is get more and more specific to the demands of whatever you’re actually trying to train for.
Brett McKay: Alright, so I guess to take with the principal there, every third workout, do some sort of high-intensity. Again, high intensities like moderate to high like, your heart feels like it’s gonna come out of your chest. There’s different ways you can do that. But again, I think the overall principal that I got for that part was most of your stuff’s gonna be low-intensity volume, that’s where they spend most of their time. ‘Cause it allows you to get the most fitness but also just doesn’t beat you up, this allows you to train more. And the more you train, the better you’re gonna be.
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah. One thing that, for those who are having trouble wrapping their head around like, why is that the best way? One thing that I think most people don’t know that kind of makes sense of all this is like, if you take a very, very challenging high-intensity interval workout, so like going to the track and running one hard lap, so 400 meters, a quarter mile, and then recovering and then doing it again, and then doing it again. Say doing it 12 times, so 12 times, a hard quarter mile with recoveries between them. If you do that type of run as your bread and butter, that’s the main type of training you do and you don’t do a lot of easy running, and you have another runner who does a lot of easy running and only does that type of workout occasionally, the runner who does a ton of easy running will destroy the other runner who specializes in that type of workout, absolutely destroy them. So that’s what you’re getting from all that easy running, it actually allows you to do… Now, if you do all easy running, you’re gonna have a very bad time at the track. But if it’s mostly easy and just a sprinkling of those hard interval workouts, it actually makes you better at the hard interval workouts. It’s not that it’s either good or bad, you’re just, you’re getting the most out of it if you’re doing most of you’re running at low-intensity.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about something I’ve… Whenever I read popular press about running, there’s a lot of emphasis on running form. You gotta be a mid-foot striker, you don’t wanna be a heel lander. Maybe you should get a running coach if you wanna up your running game. Do the pros worry about that stuff?
Matt Fitzgerald: No, not very much. I mentioned in the book that during the three plus months I was in Flagstaff, Ben, the coach on the team, he didn’t correct my form once or manipulated or asked me to change it a single time, and I did not see him do that with any of the pros on the team. And that was pretty much expected, I’ve been involved in this sport long enough to know that running technique is not emphasized at the Elite level. Now, that could be for one of two reasons. One potential reason is that, well, they all have perfect form. That’s how they became pros, and so there’s nothing to fix. The other possible reason is that sort of batting practice for running is not actually an effective way to get better at running, and it turns out that the latter is true. That running form matters and running form can and should change, but you can’t manipulate it consciously.
It actually, it’s counterproductive, and there’s a lot of science showing this. If you tell a runner who runs X way, “No, you gotta run Y way,” and you measure their running economy, their efficiency before and after. No matter what you have them change, [chuckle] no matter how textbook it looks, no matter how much prettier their form looks, they’ve gotten less efficient. So the key is to run naturally, and there are ways you can evolve your stride to make it more efficient through… Actually strength training and plyometric training helps, just running a lot helps, running at different intensities helps, getting fitter helps, losing weight helps. So there’s lots of ways to evolve your running form, but just intentionally landing differently with your foot on the ground and stuff like that is not the way to go.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and you highlight there are elite runners who are heel strikers and they’re doing alright. And maybe their training is different because it does put a lot of stress on their lower limbs, but it works for them. I think the point you… That’s the other point, is like why you should run a lot at a low intensity. The more you run, the better your running will get. Your body’s gonna adapt to find the most efficient form for you.
Matt Fitzgerald: Yes, they call it a self-optimizing system. And you know what’s going on… With every single stride you take, your brain and the rest of your body are talking to each other. And so your brain is kinda listening, “How’s it going down there?” And it’s like… If you measure your running mechanics with sophisticated accelerometers and force plates and stuff, what you see is actually no two strides that any runner takes are identical. There’s a little bit of play in the stride continuously that you can’t see with a naked eye. And there’s no way to eliminate that, and you wouldn’t want to, because that play allows for your nervous system to look for more efficient ways to get the job done. But actually your running form changes over the course of a single run, because you will unconsciously adjust your form to make up for fatigue starting to set in. So this unconscious system is way smarter than your conscious brain. So, you sort of just have to get out of the way and let it do its thing.
Brett McKay: Okay, so the takeaway there, Don’t worry too much about your form.
Matt Fitzgerald: Pretty much.
Brett McKay: Yeah. As long as you run a lot, your form will get… Will optimize… Self-optimize. Let’s talk about recovery. How do pros approach recovery differently from the amateurs?
Matt Fitzgerald: The interesting thing there, is that you might think, “Oh yeah, the pros are doing all the fancy expensive stuff like supplements and cryo therapy and compression boots and massage guns.” And, yeah, they do some of that, but really what the science shows is that… And it kinda makes sense. The things that make a real big impact with recovery are the basics, the low-tech stuff. So rest, sleep, nutrition and stress management are the big ones, those are foundational. And pretty much, if you’re doing those four things well, consistently, then you’re getting about, probably, 98% of the recovery that you could possibly get. And then that other stuff, the supplements and the compression boots can maybe get you that other one or two percent.
Brett McKay: There’s a study done on… I guess, at these runs, there’s tents you can go to where you can get compression boots and massage stuff. And I think in the study, they found, correct me if I am wrong, the athletes who go to that stuff more do worse than the athletes who don’t go to it. Don’t get that stuff done.
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah, that was actually from the Olympic Training Center. So, it was actually Olympic-level athletes. So even at that level, they found that… Yeah, they had a recovery center at the Olympic Training Center. And just the guy who operated that facility kept track of who used it. And he found that the people who used it least, were most likely to win medals. So, yeah, kind of interesting. And so yeah. And now, even if you look at sort of the competitive recreational runner, I think what you see is a lot of people… They use the gizmos and the high-tech stuff as a way to make up for not doing the basics, right? So it’s like, “Well, I don’t get enough sleep, but that’s okay, ’cause I got my compression boots.” It’s like, “My diet’s crap, but that’s okay because I take all these supplements.” It doesn’t work like that. So if there’s any benefit in the high-tech stuff, you’re only gonna get it if you’re already taking care of the basics.
Brett McKay: So, yeah. When you were at this camp, you were, what, sleeping 10 hours a night, and then also you were getting a nap, like an hour of nap during the day, correct?
Matt Fitzgerald: Well, that was the guy… That was the real pro runner I was living with when I was there, a guy named Matt Yano. So yeah, he was sleeping 10 hours a night and napping one or two hours in the afternoon. I, when I was there, I’m just not an napper. I have to have the flu, and then… Even then if I… When I wake up from my nap, I’m still a zombie for the rest of the day. So I’m like, “Forget it. No way am I gonna nap.” But when we got really, really deep into the training, I started napping too. [laughter] I saw, “Okay, this is why they do it. Just… Yeah, in order… ” I was just ready for it. My body was telling me, “Hey dude, in order to be able to sustain this workload, you’re gonna need a little bit more shut eye.” But yeah, you hear that the pros sleep a lot. And I was living with one of them there, and I saw it first hand that, yup, he made it a priority.
Brett McKay: Alright, so good sleep. The pros, of course, are also taking care of nutrition for their recovery. But you talk about it in the book, they’re not really big on, “You can’t eat this, you can’t eat that.” They just eat a lot of natural, unprocessed foods, lots of different high-quality foods. And you mentioned this in the book, that means, for a lot of the pros, they’re getting about 60-70% of their food from carbs. So pros are running on a high carb diet. And then the other thing for recovery is just stress management. And for the pros, they basically don’t do anything except run, and then just hang out basically. So just hanging out, relaxing. For the average Joe, they don’t have that luxury just to hang out when they’re not running. They have to go to work. But you talk about the… You can employ standard stress management practices like meditation, breathing exercises, things like that. You also mentioned that part of the recovery process for pros, and just staying optimally fit, is doing cross-training. What does that look like?
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah. And this is one… It’s like a… It’s really an untapped resource for a lot of recreational runners is… You know, most humans, and definitely most recreational runners, they actually… We talked about that mileage sweet spot before. But really, because running is so hard on the body through that repetitive impact, most runners, when they hit their sweet spot, where they just can’t handle any more running, they still have untapped potential to gain aerobic fitness. And the only way to mine that potential is to get aerobic training in some other modality, right? ‘Cause you’re already doing as much running as you can do, but there’s nothing stopping you from doing something else, you know swimming, cycling, cross-country skiing, rowing, whatever it is, you can actually gain a little bit extra aerobic fitness without increasing your injury risk, ’cause you’re not subjecting your body to any more hounding.
So, the pros like, they definitely… Because they’re paid to run, they try to get all of their fitness through running, and they will only supplement with cross-training if it’s apparent that they can’t get to the mountain top through running alone. But they’re very quick to do it. They won’t hesitate for a second. A lot of runners, they’re like, “Well, I don’t like that, doing that other stuff. I just wanna run.” And so they just go from all to nothing. They run until they get injured, and then they do nothing for six weeks while they heal, and you know, that’s no way to do it. And interestingly, when I was halfway through my fateful runner stint in Flagstaff, I got injured. And I cross-train like a maniac. And it was actually a pretty serious injury, it was a strain in a hip abductor tendon. And yeah, I was in the hands of the support team there, with their physical therapist and yeah, we even had… Shoot. I had a… Was even seeing a sports psychologist while I was there.
And I made this, what felt to me like a miraculous recovery. And I was just so much fitter than I thought I could be, even though I had… There was a period when I wasn’t able to do much running at all while I was healing. But because of all that cross-training, I was able to pick right back up where I left off, and like I said, still run my fastest marathon.
Brett McKay: Yeah, one type of cross-trainer that I saw, and it was treadmill hill climbs, which is… It was fun when I saw it, ’cause my wife, she’s a runner, and for a long time, she kinda settled in. It’s like, she does the treadmill where she’ll just… What she’ll do, she’ll put the treadmill at the highest incline you can go, and just walk while she watched ‘Law and Order.’
Matt Fitzgerald: Yup.
Brett McKay: And I was like, “That’s pretty silly. What… That… How’s that supposed to help you running?” Then I read this. “Oh my gosh, you’re vindicated. You figured out [chuckle] this principle and it works.” And she says it works for her. It helps her out a lot.
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah, it’s good stuff, ’cause if you think about it, what you’re doing is very, very similar to running. If you want the fitness you get from cross-training to transfer back to fitness, then you should choose something that is fairly similar. And inclined treadmill walking is… It’s not no impact, it’s low impact. So, you’re still getting a little bit of impact, which is actually good. And then you’re using… It’s weighted, and you’re using sequential movements of your legs just like you do in running, it’s just… Yeah, it does look a little goofy, but it works, like you said.
Brett McKay: It works. Well, let’s talk about mindset now, generally. How pro runners approach it differently from amateur runners. This kind of segues nicely to our conversation we had last time, a couple of years ago, about your other book ‘How Bad Do You Want It?’ What approach do pros take when it comes to sort of the psychology of performance that amateurs don’t?
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah, I mean, I love this topic, as you know already, because quite honestly… Yeah, I mean, the pro runners I was around at that time, and others I’ve gotten to know, they are impressive physical specimens. They are gifted, they work hard, they’re fitter than you can imagine, they can do things, run… Sustain speeds that are just jaw-dropping. So, they are physically different from you and me, but they’re also very different in characteristic ways above the neck, and that is really cool to me, you know? I think there were about 12 or 13 runners on the team when I was there. And there were just certain characteristics, like, psychological characteristics, that they all had, that you had to think were part of the formula for their success. And in point of fact, of those 12 or 13 runners, only one of them was like a blue chip prospect in high school. Someone who was like, “This guy is a generational talent.”
All the rest were like, “Good, not great in high school. Good, not great in college.” But they were the ones with shoe contracts as adults, because they had enough physical talent, but they also had it going on between the ears. And it was the combination of those two things that made them great. And I didn’t quite answer your question, but I wanted to just impress on people…
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Matt Fitzgerald: That like, it’s not just physical.
Brett McKay: Oh, so, what are some of the psychological traits that you saw in common with these guys?
Matt Fitzgerald: You know, one is just like, the thing that I think would be most surprising to the folks listening is, like, I saw a lot of runners during the 13 weeks I was there. A lot of the pros abandoned workouts, quit workouts, way more than… Like, the amateur runners I coach are… They would rather die than bail out of a workout. The pros do it all the time, and the reason they do it is not that they’re lazy or mentally weak, it’s because they’re smart. [laughter] Because… I remember one runner on the team, Scott Fauble, 2:09 marathoner, he bailed out of a workout. And I said, “Hey, what went wrong? Why did you quit?” He said, “Well, I’m developing a sinus infection, and I figured if I… I’ve had these before, and if I force it now, I could lose a week, but if I quit while I’m ahead, I should be back up to 100% in two, three days.”
And that’s so hard for most people to do. It seems like an easy thing, right? “Oh, he’s just being rational,” but it’s just that sort of… That kind of confidence and trust in the process that allows them to push when it’s time to push, but also to exercise discipline and restraint. They don’t live and die by today’s performance. They understand the context. And so, they’re just a little bit more relaxed and centered. And I guess, the way… I was talking about it with Ben recently, and we agreed that amateur runners try to win the workout, and pro runners try to win the process. That’s a key distinction.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s a key distinction. I know in my own experience with barbell training, when I was first getting started, I got really serious about it. I had once this period like, if I had a bad workout, I just got all pissy and just angry, and how like, it ruined my day.
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah.
Brett McKay: There reached a point where I’m like, “I can’t do that. It’s a bad workout. You have one bad workout it doesn’t mean you’re gonna have a bad performance when you compete.”
Matt Fitzgerald: Yeah, one thing I tell… I’ve started… Especially coming away from that experience in 2017, that I tell the runners I work with all the time, is that you should only judge your fitness, and if you want, your running ability, by your best workouts. Because you cannot perform better in a workout than your fitness allows, right? There are no flukes, you can’t just pull it out of thin air. Like, if you’re able to perform at a certain level on a given day, it’s because you’re fit enough to do so. There’s no other possible reason. But there’s a myriad of reasons where you could underperform in a given workout. So, if you have a sort of like mediocre workout or lay an egg, it could be because you slept poorly last night, or you’re developing a little bit of a bug, or simply because you’re a little bit tired from previous training. So, that’s like… That stuff, you just need to brush it off. And as long as your last really good workout isn’t too far in the past, then judge your fitness by that and know you’re okay, and don’t worry about the mediocre workouts.
Brett McKay: Well, what do pros do differently? Say, they’re in a competition and they got a… Like, they’re feeling uncomfortable, they’re hurting, and they’ve gotta put in that last kick so they can perform, like, do the best they can, what do pros do differently to dig deep during competition?
Matt Fitzgerald: You know, there’s some variety there, but Ben, he says… He has this term he likes. He got it from his high school coach, ‘the champion’s mindset.’ And he said, “Champions, in those moments, they relish it. They view it as their time.” It sorta reminds me a bit of that old joke, “If you and your friend are being chased by a bear, you don’t have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than your friend.” You know, running hurts. Long distance running races are… They’re suffer-fest. They’re very, very uncomfortable. And that’s true for everyone. And there are instincts in all of us that recoil from subjecting ourselves to that kind of misery, but the champions, their attitude is not like, “This sucks. I wish it didn’t suck so much.” Their attitude is, “If I can suffer just a little bit more [chuckle] than these chumps around me, it’s my race.” And so, that’s their mindset. It’s like, they don’t have to like it, they just have to just embrace it just a little bit more than the people around them.
Brett McKay: Well, Matt, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Matt Fitzgerald: Anywhere books are sold, I’m told anyway by the publisher. And for more about me, and my other books, my training plans, there’s my personal website, mattfitzgerald.org, and my business website 8020endurance.com.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Matt Fitzgerald, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Matt Fitzgerald: You bet.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Matt Fitzgerald. He is a co-author of the book, ‘Run Like A Pro, Even If You’re Slow.’ It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about Matt’s work at his website mattfitzgerald.org. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/run, where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles and interviews about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com. Sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’ve signed up, download the Stitcher App on Android or iOS, and you start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcasts or Spotify. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or a family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.