April 17, 2008
By Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times
SARA HALL experienced an instructive epiphany in 2006. In the fall, she’d won the national road-running championship for 5K (3.1 miles), a distance she specialized in at Stanford. At the time, she considered herself a 5K runner. So did everyone else.
A few weeks later, everything changed when she won the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York, a glamour event in American road racing. “Afterward, I thought, ‘That’s my distance,’ ” she said. “It plays to my strengths. I loved the fast pace. I’m not a patient runner.”
Today, Hall, 25, is laser-focused on training for the 1,500 meters (0.93 mile) in hopes of making the United States Olympic team in middle distance running.
She and her coach, Terrence Mahon, who also coaches Hall’s husband, Ryan Hall, the winner of the United States Olympic team men’s marathon trial, have increased her speed work and reconfigured how much she’s running and her intensity.
“Her work capacity has gone through the roof,” Mahon said, and she can run greater distances faster than ever before. Which makes her current regimen a good model for how recreational runners — not just the elite — can get swifter and sharper, and perhaps even decide that they have been racing the wrong distance all along.
“I’m not running as far these days,” Hall said, compared with the distances she ran in high school and college. That might come as a surprise to anyone who learns that her average weekly mileage remains 85 to 90 (compared with her husband’s 140-plus). A typical training week includes easy running on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday (usually twice a day). Hall, who can run almost a four-minute mile, lopes through these 30- or 50-minute workouts at a leisurely mile pace of 7 minutes. (To accurately figure her mile splits, she wears a watch equipped with G.P.S.) On Saturday, she takes a 14-mile run at a pace (5 minutes 45 seconds per mile) that is between what she runs in races and her easy days.
Then there are the fast, hard interval sessions at a track on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These hurt because they are supposed to. “You stress the body to get it to adapt” to the mechanical and physiological demands of speed, Mahon said. A typical Tuesday session includes two miles of warm-up, six miles of intervals and three miles of cool-down.
Anyone not aiming for an Olympic qualifying time should adjust speed-training mileage downward, Mahon said. “Go to a track and run a mile flat-out” and record your time, he said. Your ideal pace for a 5K race would be around 95 percent as fast per mile. Then implement what Mahon calls “over-speed and under-speed training.” In over-speed, you sprint through quarter-miles, 800 meters and other intervals at a speed faster than your 5K pace (close to your top mile time). Don’t run more than two fast miles.
For under-speed work, time your interval splits to be a little slower than your 5K pace, with shorter rest periods than those within the over-speed intervals. Total mileage can be four to six miles. Cool down with a gentle jog of about half your total interval distance.
Try sprinting one week, and running slower the next or, if you’re an experienced racer, both in separate sessions in a week. Don’t, despite its discomforts, worm out of speed work. “The most common mistake” that recreational runners make, Mahon said, “is running the same pace all the time.” Occasionally making yourself run fast, he said, “is the only way to make yourself a fast runner.”
Hall kicks like a mule when she runs. She’s trying to stop. “This year, we’ve been totally focused on my form,” she said. “I tend to lean forward and I have a big back kick.” This slightly toppling stance lessens the power of her strides, and also has made her prone to being tripped up from behind during races.
Although some runners and coaches are loathe to fiddle with a runner’s stride, Mahon isn’t one of them. “Proper running form will lessen the chance of injuries and further the longevity of an athlete’s career,” he said. “It will improve running economy and allow the runner to run faster with less fuel expended.”
To help with form, “those of us in the elite-distance running community have started looking at what sprinters do,” Mahon said.
Ideally, he said, “You want a straight, perpendicular line between the ground and your ankle and knee.” So, for up to two hours a day, several times a week, Hall has been practicing various drills, which as she said, are designed to teach her to “keep your feet right underneath you.”
During each exercise, she said, she tried to land more toward her heels than her toes. This is known as “dorsiflexion” of the ankle, or a slight upward tilting of the foot. Mahon said this is the ideal foot-strike position. Landing flat-footed or near your heel, he said, “allows for the arch to work as a spring.” It also “allows for the ankle joint to disperse shock up to the knee and hip and lessen the total blow on a single joint.”
The drills seem to be working for Hall, who demonstrated some of her favorites on a recent Thursday while training at the University of California, Riverside, with her husband. “People have told me I look more upright,” she said. She hasn’t tangled legs with another racer for months. And, she said, her feet don’t hurt like they once did.
LOAD UP ON ICE
“You can’t keep up with a heavy workload” of running if you don’t recover between sessions, Mahon said. Hall schedules a weekly sports massage and, after hard interval sessions, settles herself into an ice bath (a tub filled with ice-cube-laced water at the sports medicine department at U.C. Riverside, where she trains) for 15 minutes.
This immersion is widely believed to help reduce the swelling and soreness that can follow intense workouts. Ice baths after intervals “feel really good,” she said. The scientific evidence is more equivocal.
study published last month in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed that cold-water immersion did hasten muscle recovery and also reduced swelling in men assigned to complete repeated leg press exercises. Other studies haven’t shown similar benefits from ice baths.
But Mahon, at least, believes ice baths are helpful in reducing swelling and soreness in his athletes, allowing them to return for another interval session within only a day or two. (Most sports medicine doctors suggest waiting until any significant muscle soreness is gone before repeating a hard workout.)
TRY IT, YOU MIGHT LIKE IT
“It can be hard for an average runner to know what his real genetic potential is,” Mahon said. “Many runners pick a distance and stick with it.” The dedicated, mediocre marathoner may never discover that nature had intended him to win his age group at 5Ks.
“You have to run different distances,” Hall said. “Experiment. If I hadn’t run that Fifth Avenue Mile, I wouldn’t be doing the 1,500 now.”
More systematically, Mahon says, track your performance during intervals. “Are you excelling in the workouts that highlight intensity or those that highlight endurance?” he said. “We saw that Sara was topping the charts in intensity.” She was clearly meant, he said, to be going hard, fast, and relatively short.
Destiny, of course, can be tweaked. Hall doesn’t expect to contest the 1,500 for the rest of her career. “The speed work that I’m doing now for the 1,500 will translate beautifully” to the 5K, she said, should she decide to run that distance at the 2008 United States Olympic Trials or at future Olympics.
Then there’s the marathon, which has an ineluctable pull. “Ryan makes the training look so fun,” she said almost wistfully. But for now, “I haven’t reached my potential in the 1,500. There’s still lots of speed to explore.”