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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Should we train by feel or with science?

I have just read an interesting article on the above subject: Check it out & then read the following blog entry. Then, decide for yourself if you are in balance with your training, or whether a boost from either side could help you achieve the next level in your development as an athlete.

The article is somewhat subjective, contradictory & anecdotal, but raises some excellent points. It I do however agree that the Africans train by feel, & that they have a different relationship with the sensations of the sport at high intensity. For a long time now I have admonished runners for having lost their “feel” by over-reliance on heart rate monitors, stop watches, GPS’s, etc. I feel that workouts like fartlek & runs for time teach pacing & feel & too many leave them out, especially the triathletes, who want it all recorded. That’s why I love workouts that emphasize distance over time (e.g. run as hard as you can for 30 minutes, versus time over distance, (run a 4-mile time trial). Recovery based training is an excellent model for most amateurs, but it does make targeting a specific event (to have peak fitness on the day) rather hit or miss. The conundrum is setting intensity/pace & volume for athletes who have not developed feel through trial & error from years in the sport. Break down or plateauing through a “suck-it-and-see” approach is not a luxury that most coaches can afford, & breakdown through illness or injury leads to massive detraining (& loss of confidence & momentum) & therefore under training is a better way to go for most. Many, many Africans fall by the wayside due to this feel approach – we just don’t know about it. We either figure out how hard to train without breakdown & get better – metabolic progressive overload, or we don’t & break down, lose it all & start again – catabolic excessive overload. They have many more talented athletes in their gene pool who are trying to succeed than we have & an “eggs against the wall approach” (push them as hard as possible & the survivors become champs) is one that the African coaches can afford, but we cannot, (unless we have a huge recruiting budget!).

The point is well taken though, but science as a means to establish what’s working & what is not, is very useful. The heart rate monitor has long been known to have serious limitations as a coaching tool. Racing heart rates under similar conditions & the same velocity are often much higher than training heart rates. In the world of cycling, where the measure of output in watts is now a simple enough procedure, has long since all but tossed out the heart rate monitor as a training tool & uses it more as a secondary confirmation that training is having the desired effect &/or that certain training is not appropriate at a specific time. In swimming where variables are able to be tightly controlled, that besides lactate threshold testing, (again to determine the efficacy of training), velocity (speed) is all that coaches need to measure advancement & even the Kenyans measure that right?

Lastly, pros race to win & that is what this article is about, but amateurs & age-groupers are less warrior-like & more the athlete type, i.e. they wish to improve their own performance & do not often consider that they are racing to win a race outright. In this scenario, pacing & effort – especially in the longer events, greatly determines the quality of the performance – with this approach the tools of the trade can prove very useful. If I know that my pace needs to be x, to achieve a certain goal outcome & I exceed that pace greatly in the early stages, (which is really easy to do), then I am inefficient & will most likely not achieve my target. The Ethiopian star could not give a two-penny hoot about his mile pace, (kilometers in his case!), whether that be 5:15 (a pedestrian marathon pace for him), or 4:15 (approx. WR 10km pace), he knows where he is at in the race & where he needs to be positioned to win & if his physiology & fitness let him down on the day, then it’s “ah well, maybe next time”. The scientists & coaches may be able to determine why it was not on, on that day, but they cannot with any certainty determine what training & tapering exactly would have produced an optimum result – that is where the art, feel & intuition of coach & athlete come into play. Probably why so many great coaches peaked so late in their careers; it took a LONG time for them to blend the art & the science & learn the process of reading each individual athlete & then applying, testing & repeating until voila, a world beater!

Science & feel (art) need to go hand in hand; I have seen too many great performances not achieved by Africans because they failed to pay attention to what science could have foreseen. Similarly I have seen numbers-focused athletes freeze when they realized the devices were telling them that perhaps they were operating in unknown territory & were bound to implode & the thoughts alone led to the slowing or the implosion.


  1. Running by feel brought me back from the dead after following a schedule led to injuries before two major races. Lorraine Moller told me to leave the Garmin GPS in the drawer and just run. But, having said that....

    ... from what I've read (eg More Fire, how to run the Kenyan way, by Toby Tanser, and other books and interviews) the Africans DO have schedules, and some of them are precise. The "feel" I think we are talking about here that the Africans have and Westerners now seem to lack is the feel for running in training right on the red line.

    Partly this is due to to the "throw eggs at the wall" system of "natural selection" they employ, but it also seems to be an inbuilt (?) tendency that they are not afraid to suffer in training. As a result, races are easy by comparison and the Kenyan, Ethiopian or Moroccan going into a race doesn't start scared. The Mexicans are the same. They know they can suffer, and they will stick with whatever pace is required to maintain a competitive position - they are not checking their splits and heart rates and worrying whether they are "operating in unknown territory". Been there, done that: I suffer from pace/HR obsesssion and I used to back off in a race if my GPS "told" me to!

    Of course, a major difference with the Africans is that they always train in groups and they are highly competitive in training...that may have its drawbacks, but I'm sure it helps them develop "feel".

  2. I am sick of the sentiment that Americans are soft and can't train or race without gadgets... also the fear of the gadgets makes me a little ill. The tools are useful to prevent everyone from being a yolk smashed all over the wall but sometimes we may just need to smash it every once in a while even as an age grouper. The only time you should be ashamed of a race is if you left something on the table.