Saturday, May 05, 2012

The question

Should I be pacing myself or going all out when I’m training?

The answer

Last winter, gold medalist Simon Whitfield led a squad of triathletes from the Canadian national team on a trip to Nike headquarters in Portland, Ore., for a 10-day training camp. Their goal: to elevate their running game by learning from the elite crew of distance runners and highly sought after coaches based there.

One of the key lessons they picked up was the importance of finding the right pace – that, at least in training, going faster isn’t always better. It may sound obvious, but sports psychologists believe that learning to monitor and adjust to feedback during training is a powerful tool for developing expertise – even in apparently simple activities such as running and biking.

The group Mr. Whitfield trained with in Portland included Simon Bairu of Regina, who earlier this month smashed the Canadian record for 10,000 metres by 13 seconds at a race in Palo Alto, Calif., running 27:23.63. Chris Solinsky, another member of the group, broke the U.S. record in the same race, and a third member of the Portland group also dipped below the old U.S. record.

“They’re so precise about their pacing,” Mr. Whitfield says. “We came home with the message that when a tempo run is supposed to be, let’s say, 3:05 [per kilometre] pace, then 3:03 pace is not a success. That’s a fail.”

Such precision may be daunting, but it’s a hallmark of “deliberate practice,” a concept advanced by Florida State University cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson and popularized in recent books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. The best way to master an activity is not simply to repeat it mindlessly over and over again, Dr. Ericsson argues, but to set specific goals and monitor how well you meet them.

The theory is most commonly applied to highly technical activities such as tennis or violin; for simpler activities such as running, “practice” usually involves simply heading out the door and doing it. But in a study of the training practices of elite runners by University of Ottawa researchers Bradley Young and John Salmela, what separated the highest-performing group from their less accomplished peers was how much they incorporated elements such as interval training, tempo runs and time trials, all of which require ongoing attention to pace and other feedback.

Once you become familiar with how different paces feel and how long you’re able to maintain them, knowing your speed can actually enhance performance, according to a study in a forthcoming issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Researchers had cyclists perform a four-kilometre time trial around a track, with no intermediate pacing information provided. When they repeated the trial with pace feedback after each 250-metre lap, the times improved; when the riders were given deliberately incorrect pace feedback, the times got slower.

You don’t need to head to a track to implement these ideas. Many bike paths have kilometres marked, and you can use programs such as Google Earth to measure a route. Alternately, you can simply pick a few landmarks along your route without worrying about the precise distance, and monitor how your time between those landmarks varies from week to week.

The goal isn’t to get faster every time you run; it’s to develop an automatic feel for how fast you’re running, so that when you do check your watch, it just confirms what you already knew.

“I think that it is extremely important for an athlete to understand how they feel during exercise,” says University of Bedfordshire exercise physiologist Lex Mauger, the lead author of the cycling study. “Performance varies from day to day, so a particular pace that was appropriate one day may not be the next.”

After two Olympic medals, you might think Mr. Whitfield had pretty much figured out how to train. But it’s his attention to these details and his desire to keep learning that underlie his continued success – even though he confesses that incorporating the new lessons hasn’t been easy.

“Even our tempo run today turned into one of those where you’re slowly ramping up and up and up,” he laughs. “But in general we’re trying to be more precise about what pace we’re supposed to run.”

Alex Hutchinson blogs about research on exercise at

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