Science funding models: toward the extremes, toward moderation or both?

I recently participated in a small research conference that focused on fundamental research in battery materials. The talks were great, the locale was blissful and I left with much to chew on in a scientific sense. Surprising to me though, weeks after the conference, I kept coming back to a particular conversation between a tableful of scientists and engineers who were drinking tongue-relaxing amounts of tasty local beer. We were discussing models of science funding in the US and peoples opinions on what works and what doesn’t. Below is a summary of some thoughts that were batted around.

Hub-based funding. To simplify, a hub-type model is on the large-scale side of science funding. It typically involves a multi-university/national lab/industry partner effort. The idea is to think big and tackle a huge problem all the way from fundamental to pilot-scale research development (or even as far as technology-scale). A few snippets my table full of scientists and engineers:

  • The logistics and organization of that many scientists and engineers working together can often bog down and defocus efforts.
  • The larger the pot of money, the more grandiose the claims and promises, for better and worse.
  • Large hubs are politically appealing as they typically tackle huge problems that are tractable to the average person. Tell a politician that you work on understanding surface electrolyte interface formation kinetics and they’ll blink twice for “does not compute.” Tell them that you’re going to build the next generation battery for electric cars that will cost less money and they’ll smile because, well, that’s something tangible that tax payer dollars should fund.

Center-based funding. A slightly scaled down version of a hub. Typically involves 2-3 institutions working on a more specific problem (and perhaps less grand than a hub). Potential conflict of interest notice: I and many of the people involved with this conference have been or are currently involved with center-based funding, some part of hub-based funding, too.

  • There was general agreement that this was at least a decent model as the smaller scale takes care of some of the logistics problems.
  • Furthermore, the amount of money is typically less which, in theory, makes a bad bet easier to stomach.
  • I’m not sure if there is research to back this but there IS something useful about having your collaborators close at hand. We can talk about how technology has essentially rid us of communication barriers through file sharing, email, video conferencing, etc but I personally still believe that the barrier toward useful collaboration is lowered as the proximity of your collaborator gets closer. There are plenty of examples of long distance collaboration working beautifully but what you don’t hear about are all the times it falls flat after six months.

Single Investigator-based funding. A model where a single principle investigator (PI) is funded for a focused project.

  • One participant at the conference went so far as to say that hub- and center-based funding is a waste of time and money. We should put all of the grant resources into more numerous and higher dollar value single investigator awards. His hypothesis is that people who are highly motivated to do the best science are going to be collaborating with other highly motivated scientists around the world regardless of hubs or no hubs. Why spend energy and money forcing something that would occur naturally?
  • This last point spurred another touchy subject: funding ideas versus funding people. With limited grant money available for single investigator awards, those who review and award grants are faced with the tough decision of choosing between a lot of stellar research proposals. What to do? A calloused viewpoint is that those awards will typically go to people who have a proven track record of research. It’s a safer bet than giving the money to someone who is unproven but might have an intriguing idea for research. This problem is somewhat alleviated by things like early-career awards from NSF and NIH but with a combination of a shift in focus towards hub- and center-based funding along with flatline or decreasing funding opportunities overall, there are a lot of individual researchers left in the lurch. This is particularly problematic for early tenure professors at smaller universities who have less of an opportunity to contribute to hub- or center-based efforts.

Which model produces the highest quality science per taxpayer dollar? There is no easy way to answer that question. Sure, we could look at a list of publications versus grant dollar amount and assign a value of $/publication. That wouldn’t be useful seeing as the sheer numbers game doesn’t necessarily track with quality, i.e., quantity does not always equate to quality. In fact, some would go as far to argue that there might be an inverse correlation to those two things. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here in saying that all three models, when done right, are good things for science. 

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How to “get speed”

In a previous post I mentioned that any coach telling you that hard anaerobic interval training is going to making you a faster distance runner is telling you a lie. That’s a bold statement and I suppose I should back it up. So what does make a faster runner? Fast running comes from several factors (including genetics) but the key aspects I’ll focus on here are stride efficiency, stride frequency and power generation.

Stride efficiency is the idea that at high speeds, a runner should be moving fluidly and with little wasted motion. What is wasted motion? Several examples include a bouncy up and down stride, knees staying too low during forward leg stride, sitting back in your hips and excessive shoulder and elbow movement from side to side. Stride efficiency comes from practicing proper high speed running techniques in very short bursts that do not incur oxygen debt and/or lactic acid build up. These are often referred to as sprint drills. They can be 50-100m sprints with ample walking recovery between repetitions that include: exaggerated skipping, exaggerated high knees, exaggerated focus on quick feet, focus on back leg drive, focus on getting the back leg’s foot tucked under the butt to make it whip forward faster and focus on running tall and relaxed. Only focusing on one component of proper running technique at a time allows the runner to isolate what it feels like when you change the nature of that motion. Put them all together and the body and brain will begin to rewire its neuromuscular system to a more efficient stride that allows for higher speeds.

Stride frequency is the idea that having a foot planted for longer than necessary during running wastes a considerable amount of energy. While numbers vary considerably even for elite athletes and also vary by running speed, it’s generally accepted that 180 strides per minute is a number to have in mind. Just count every left foot step for a minute and multiply by two. Where are you? If getting up to 180 feels strange or causes you to severely change your stride, then lower it back a bit until it’s comfortable. Generally I don’t put too much thought into stride frequency other than to say that runners should always avoid a “plodding along” type motion.

Power generation comes from practicing short sprints, again 50-80m or so, but this time doing them up a reasonably steep hill. This accentuates good forward knee drive and strong push off with the back leg by adding the resistance of the hill. Hill sprints will also help develop strong gluteus, calf and foot muscles and also help lightly stretch tendons in the foot and achilles. All of these things prepare the body to more safely handle fast running during a race.

There are many successful high school cross country programs that have their runners doing hill sprints and sprint drills nearly year-round because they know that fast running efficiency is not something that can be quickly gained the week before an important race. The great thing about this approach is that sprint drills and hill sprints are not incredibly taxing. They can be done in a set of 10 or so at the end of an easy run and do not utilize anaerobic fuel oxidation. The physiology of this type of running has to do with an intramuscular fuel source called creatine phosphate (CP). CP is a high energy fuel source that is quickly depleted during a short burst of intense exercise. Though it is quickly depleted, it is also quickly replenished, thus if the sprint repetition is short enough and the rest period long enough (maybe a minute of slow jogging or walking) before the next sprint, anaerobic fuel oxidation (production of lactate) is almost completely bypassed. Anaerobic fuel use starts only when the local CP is depleted which happens after approximately 20 seconds of sprinting.

What does this mean practically for a runner trying to add some speed work to their running? One or two sessions per week of 10 x 50-100m or 15-20s fast/relaxed sprinting or similar sprints on short/steep hills with ample recovery can do wonders for you in the long run. If you’ve never done this type of running before, ease into it, especially the hill sprinting. Maybe just try a couple of sprints with full walking recovery. Also, always be very well warmed up before doing sprint drills or hill sprints as fast running requires warm muscles. I find that it’s best to add these sessions to the end of an easy run.

There is one last point I’d like to make that is less practical and more of a philosophy of running. If you watch elite sprinters (100m or 200m) and notice their faces while they race, what do you see? The best will have almost a blank expression and/or a slackened face – total relaxation. What do you see all elite runners doing right before they toe the line to a race? Mostly they bounce around to get rid of nervous energy, walk around slowly, take deep breathes, roll their necks and shoulders and shake out their legs. You rarely, if ever, see them pumping themselves up and flexing and acting aggressive. Why is this? Because fast running comes from relaxed running. This is true in almost all sports. What do you often see a pitcher do on the mound before they throw a pitch? Nine times out of ten they will be taking a very deep breath, exhale, then pitch. Whether that is instinctive or trained, they’ve figured out that optimal athletic performance comes from relaxation. This doesn’t suggest that these pursuits aren’t difficult – they are very difficult. All the more reason to not tense up.

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Ups and Downs

I recently attended a research conference in California where the focus was entirely on batteries which was a first for me. The particular aim of this conference is for industry, government and academic researchers to come together in a relaxed environment and small(ish) setting to talk about the pie-in-the-sky research they are working on. There is an understood rule at this particular conference that no one is allowed to talk about published work they’ve done – it all has to be new and likely not fully fleshed out or understood. In the right setting this spurs on fantastic discussions between people who are at the top of their field as well as younger faculty and graduate students who are trying to get a foot-hold and may have different perspectives about these problems. 

What was invigorating about the conference?

– Analytical tools and instrumentation continue to improve rapidly.
     – Higher resolution electron microscopes capable of real-time measurements at the atomic scale.
     – Synchrotron light sources are allowing for high resolution 3-D elemental mapping of important battery materials.

– A lot of people are stepping back and taking a look at the fundamental problems associated with rechargeable batteries and supercapacitors instead of trying to achieve the “highest number of X ever reported.” 

– There are a lot of younger folks (professors and bright grad students) making their way into the field. Fresh blood is always a good thing in my opinion.

– Chemistry will always be important. Battery research is difficult in part because it has been tackled for so long from a largely engineering point of view. I think people are seeing now that there are limits to that approach and understanding the underlying chemistry is the only way forward.

– There is a lot of work going into onboard battery diagnostics. Typically the only thing asked of a battery is “what is your state of charge?” State of charge does not necessarily report on the health of a battery. Smart people who do modeling of battery systems are trying to develop ways of asking the right questions (or measuring the right properties of the battery) that could give hints at when a battery is about to fail or when it is reaching it’s useful lifespan.

What was depressing or frustrating about the conference?

– Inconsistency of measurement continue to be a problem, i.e., there is still no well established protocol that all researchers follow in order to test their battery material’s capacity, durability, safety, etc such that we’re all on the same playing field. This is part of the reason that I rarely look at papers that claim “highest, fastest, longest lasting…” and solely focus on that aspect. 

– An academic researcher who has been in the field for 30 years pointed out that there are still only two handfuls worth of battery cathode and anode materials that have or ever will see the market within 10 years time. This is 25 years after Sony released the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery. To put this in perspective, the fundamental materials inside of the battery of your current smartphone is not any different than that Sony battery 25 years ago. The demands placed on charge storage and charge delivery in comparison to the power and energy densities  that hydrocarbon fuels can deliver sometimes makes me want to throw my hands up in surrender. This is a very tough problem.

– Industry continues and will likely continue to make the world’s highest performing batteries. It is wrong to believe that academic or government labs have made things that work better than what’s in your smartphone or laptop – they don’t, believe me. Why is this? Industry makes money by patenting secret recipe additives that they put inside rechargeable lithium ion batteries that allow them to last longer, hold more charge, deliver more power, etc. These secret additives are typically developed in-house by massive amounts of trial and error and they will not tell you the formulation such that one could determine the mechanism of WHY these secret additives work. Industry just knows that they DO work and that’s all that matters.  

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“Comfortably hard” is magic

In previous posts I’ve written a lot about aerobic versus anaerobic running. Aerobic running is the foundation of distance running, it’s safe, it’s relatively easy to build up mileage, it can be used to recover from hard workouts (regenerative running or jogging) and paves the way for other types of faster training. In contrast, I’ve portrayed anaerobic running as something to be quite careful with. Used in small doses it can be an effective way to put a fine edge on your training but too many sessions or too much with too little rest can lead to significant fatigue and inconsistent running. So where is the middle ground? How do I safely get faster (or more accurately, how do I get more comfortable running at faster paces)? Can I just do more and more easy running and keep getting faster? I keep coming back to him, but once again, famed Kiwi Arthur Lydiard had an answer: 3/4 effort runs. 3/4 effort? What is that? Lets back up and look at the previous questions first.

How do I safely get faster (or more accurately, how do I get more comfortable running at faster paces for longer periods of time)?

I believe that getting quantifiably faster requires several things: a solid aerobic baseline of running, consistency and workouts that touch on a variety of running paces. I don’t believe it is possible to maximize any potential without consistency so lets take that as top priority. If consistency is top priority then this goes hand-in-hand with developing an aerobic baseline of running fitness. Essentially it’s putting together long segments (weeks, months, etc) of uninterrupted running that your body can handle and build on. This part alone can take a while to figure out individually. Some people can ramp up mileage relatively quickly while others may have to play it safe and only incrementally add mileage over several months. Some people will thrive on lower average miles per week while others won’t start running faster until they extend that average significantly above what they’re doing now. There is a bit of trial and error to this process but the old adage of “listening to your body” is excellent advice during this process. 

Can I just do more and more easy running and keep getting faster?

Without new training stimulus you simply cannot get faster after a baseline fitness has been established. What does this mean? It means that a beginning runner will see huge improvements for quite some time by simply running a bunch of easy mileage consistently. Eventually though, the law of diminishing returns will take over and piling on more and more easy miles really doesn’t gain you much in terms of speed. Sure, you can run a lot farther than before, i.e., your endurance has improved but you cannot maintain higher speeds for long periods of time which relates to your specific stamina. When this happens you need new stimuli in the form of variable paced running. Getting in shape to run is one thing. Training to run and race fast is another.(*) Once a level of consistency and a good aerobic baseline of running has been establish then it is reasonable to start adding in segments of faster paced running. 

How fast and how much? 

Lydiard’s answer to how fast is the so-called 3/4 effort run. To his stable of Olympic caliber athletes this meant about 60 minutes of marathon-paced running. 

What if I haven’t ever run a marathon? 

That’s ok – all these 3/4 effort runs consist of are efforts that are faster than an easy run but not anywhere near all out racing effort – think comfortably hard. No knee grabbing, no struggling to maintain pace but also not a walk in the park either. You probably shouldn’t be able to speak in complete sentences while doing a 3/4 effort run. When beginning these types of runs it’s best not to go straight into a 60 minute run. Build the run up over weeks and months instead. Maybe first try 10 minutes at this effort within a 40 minute easy run. Then try 2×10 minutes with a 5 minute jog between. Then try 20 minutes continuous, etc. Always be working from an amount and effort that feels reasonable and work forward from there. You should never have to psyche yourself up to do these types of runs. When done right you should feel “pleasantly tired” at the end, feeling like you could go a little further if you had to but you wouldn’t necessarily want to. 

How often should I do them? 

Once a week is perfectly safe and some people can even do two of these workouts each week if their overall mileage is reasonably high and can be maintained consistently. 

Why do they work?

3/4 effort runs are often described as being the highest end of the aerobic running spectrum. This means that going faster would start to illicit significant response from your anaerobic fuel utilization system. For the effort spent, they provide a concentrated training stimulus that develops more aerobic enzymes and mitochondria in your muscles, further develops capillary beds in your legs to more efficiently deliver oxygen-rich blood to your muscles and to efficiently take away the waste products generated. All of these things allow you to run faster for longer before dipping into significant amounts of anaerobic running. Remember that running in a purely anaerobic state is limiting since the generation of acidic blood as a result of using lactate as a fuel source quickly shuts down activity.

My opinion is that if you can correctly implement the 3/4 effort run, that they are the most impactful and useful types of runs one can do to become a better distance runner for racing the mile to the marathon. As with all running, getting the feel right is what is important. If you do have a recent marathon pace to go on, that’s great but remember that there are many things that influence how you will run on any given day. How much sleep did you get? How is your emotional state? How do your legs feel? Are you in similar shape to when you ran that marathon time? Did you just do a hard workout two days ago? What is the weather like? Hot? Humid? Windy? All of these things should be taken into account when deciding on a pace for a 3/4 effort run (really, any run actually). Say your marathon pace from a few months ago is 8:00 min/mile but it is hot and humid and you only got 5 hours of sleep last night. Maybe bump that pace up to 8:20 for the 3/4 effort run and see how that feels. If the effort is the same as when you are fully rested and are running under optimal weather conditions then you are basically getting the exact same desired physiological response. That’s what you are after: connecting the “feel” of a run to the physiological response you are trying to illicit.

I keep hearing about tempo runs – what are those? Is a 3/4 effort run a tempo run?

A tempo run IS NOT the same thing as a 3/4 effort run even though the terminology often gets swapped around. Generally tempo pace is defined as being significantly faster than the 3/4 effort run. Many people wrongly believe that running 3/4 effort pace doesn’t do anything for someone who is focusing on the mile, 5k or 10k which is far faster paced running than 3/4 effort. They are completely wrong. The bridging link between your inherent speed and your developed aerobic endurance (lots of easy miles) comes in part from being able to do a high volume of training at paces between those two extremes. 3/4 effort runs fit perfectly into that definition. One problem I have with tempo running is that it’s quite hard to do if you aren’t already extremely fit. A common tempo run would be 20-25 minutes continuous at faster than half marathon pace. That’s a very hard run even when fit and can leave you feeling pretty banged up for days afterward. Remember what I said about consistency: if you have to take significant breaks after completing one of these harder workouts, then you are defeating the purpose. True, without stress (workouts) there cannot be significant improvement but without consistency there is nothing.

(*) For many people, “getting in shape to run” and simply running for health is the goal. That is a fantastic goal and if that’s what you’re after then you can stop reading because you will enjoy all of the aerobic benefits of running without ever having to do more than put in consistent easy miles each week. 

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The unimportance of particular schedules for hard anaerobic workouts

In several previous posts I have outlined Arthur Lydiard’s approach to maximizing the potential of a runner who is training for events from 800 meters all the way up to the marathon and beyond. The critical foundation of his methods lie in the development of a solid aerobic baseline of running ability. Once this “base” is developed to the degree necessary (or as time permits), an athlete can make the transition into harder training which is often referred to as anaerobic training. I mentioned before how the transition to this type of training could be made more safely through a series of hill repetition runs. Now for the actual hard stuff.

So what is anaerobic training? Anaerobic exercise involves utilizing fuel in your muscles without the aid of oxygen. As you go faster and faster (and longer) your body can only supply oxygen to your muscles at a rate that is associated with your current level of aerobic training. Once you go beyond that point (often referred to as oxygen debt) your body will begin to switch over to anaerobic fuel utilization in an attempt to maintain muscle contraction. The lactate ion (coming from lactic acid) in your bloodstream is used as the fuel source.(*) Your body can only use lactate as a fuel source for a limited time due to the acidity of your blood rising to levels that interfere with normal cell metabolism and neuromuscular function. That aching, burning, cement-like feeling when you’ve exercised to exhaustion is this metabolism and neuromuscular breakdown. As a side note, aerobic fuel use is 19 times more efficient than anaerobic fuel use. 19 times! This is part of the reason Lydiard focused so heavily on developing the ability to run/exercise aerobically before moving on to other energy systems.

What does anaerobic training mean to a runner? It’s the really fast laps that your gym teacher or football/basketball/soccer coach made you run as some weird form of punishment. They made you dizzy and wobbly legged at the end with a burning sensation in your lungs. You may have even felt the desire to throw up. THAT is anaerobic training done to an extreme that isn’t very useful. Well, maybe it is as a form of punishment.

There are several things to keep in mind when moving into anaerobic training:

(1) Anaerobic training is necessary if one wants to absolutely maximize their ability in “shorter” events such as the mile, 5k and 10k but very good results can still be achieved without doing any of it. Half marathon runners and marathon runners can essentially skip anaerobic training all together an not miss out on anything because those events are almost 100% aerobic-based.

(2) Anaerobic training eventually deteriorates your aerobic base if done for extended periods of time.

(3) Anaerobic training is like fire – control is key, too much will ruin the fine edge you’ve worked so hard to develop.

(4) Contrary to popular belief, anaerobic training does not develop speed or make you faster. It is simply a way to introduce small amounts of lactic acid buildup in your body (often referred to as lactate buffering) such that it can learn to efficiently and effectively metabolize the lactate as fuel and remove waste products associated with anaerobic fuel use (often referred to as lactate shuttling). If a coach is telling you that running as fast as you can for one lap around the track is making you faster – you can politely disagree. The point of anaerobic running is biochemical, not mechanical.

So how do I know how fast, how far, how much rest between laps, how many repetitions I should do for this anaerobic training? Herein lies the beauty of Lydiard’s methods and the power of understanding some of the physiology of what you are doing to your body before you blindly tilt at a set of 12 x 400 meters in X amount of time gleaned from a magazine. Below is an anecdote from ‘Running with Lydiard’ by Arthur Lydiard:

One of the greatest difficulties I have had in persuading coaches and athletes to accept my system is that the majority have been chained to the principles of interval training, which emphasises anaerobic interval training or repetition work as the MOST important phase of a training programme. As far as I am concerned, it is the LEAST important.

Anaerobic capacity can be developed to its maximum very easily with various types of work which do not need to be rigidly controlled; it is simply a matter of the athletes tiring themselves with anaerobic exercise and stopping when they feel they have had enough. If they sprinted as fast as possible, they would probably not cover more than 135 metres before their bodies were forced to compensate; if they sprinted a little slower, they could go a distance farther because the rate of increase of the oxygen debt slows in proportion to the reduction in the workload imposed by the running speed. Either way, they achieve the same end result.

No-one can be specific about this type of training. If we work hard enough, intensively enough and long enough, the pH level will come down and it does not need the regimented programme of specific numbers of repetition runs over specific distances in specific times with specific intervals in between. The difference is whether you control your training or your training controls you. I defy any coach to say exactly what any one athlete should do for his or her anaerobic training. Training conditions vary constantly, the state of the athlete must vary almost from day to day. So you must use repetitions without anyone being concerned about the interval, as long as it is roughly equidistant; or the number to be run; or what times they should be run in. You can do ‘ups and downs’ – from 100 metres to 400 metres and back again – but this tends to be predetermined and regimented and I prefer to avoid them.

I like to keep my athletes away from the track as much as possible. I would rather find a forest trail or an area with a pleasant environment, warm them up and then run them to a tree or some kind of natural marker and jog them back. Then I let them continue until either I or they think they have had enough. We may use fartlek, employing hard sprints here and there with a series of repetitions. Anything is better than a systematic grind on a closed track. Different athletes using different methods in the same group can all come in tired from their workouts, all with a lowered pH level; each, in his or her own way, will have been developing an anaerobic capacity towards its maximum. The exercise does not matter; what is important is that athletes should understand the physiological reactions they are trying to achieve and should know when they feel they have had enough and why they feel that way. An athlete is less likely to overdo training and invite blackouts or vomiting because he or she has dragged the pH level excessively low and disrupted the central nervous system.

We were working out on a college ground at Te Awamutu one day when a group of pupils stopped to watch. “What’s he doing”?, one asked. “Repetitions”, I explained. They knew all about those. “How many is he going to do?” “I don’t know.” “What times is he running?” “I’m not timing him.” They exchanged looks of disbelief. Was I supposed to be coaching one of New Zealand’s best runners? Then I asked, “How far round is this track, anyway?” They knew then I did not know what I was talking about. When Dick finished and joined us, they asked him, “How many did you do?” “I didn’t count them”, Dick said. “What times were you running?” “I didn’t time them.” I decided it was time to explain to these boys, before they ran off laughing, that times and numbers were unimportant. What mattered was the effect on TAYLER of what he was doing; and he knew better than I did what he wanted to do and when he had enough. Anaerobic training is something we have to do if we intend to race well but, at the same time, we must always keep in mind that if we overdo it we lose our most essential asset, the very thing we have been building, our good condition, which determines our performance level. So, all the time you are building your capacity to exercise anaerobically, jealously guard your good condition or the whole purpose of the programme is defeated.

There you have it. It is up to you to know when you’ve had enough for a session. A rough guide might be to run hard up a hill or out to a tree or a lap around the track or a field, jog the same distance as a recovery (this allows the acid to flush out of your systme, i.e., raise the pH of your blood), do it again and repeat as necessary until you feel your form starting to fail, your legs get heavy, etc. Now stop. You’ve achieved what you set out to do: introduce small amounts of lactate into your bloodstream and use it as fuel until you tire. It does not matter how many of those repetitions you did or how fast you ran them. You achieved the biochemical goal and that’s all you need to know.

Some practical points of anaerobic training:

(1) In my own experience, anaerobic training always feels more comfortable (and appears to be more effective) after developing a solid aerobic base period of anywhere from 6-12 weeks.

(2) There is a degree of variability in how much anaerobic training an individual needs in order to maximize results. Some people respond quickly and only require a few sessions of this hard work while others need a month or more (8+ sessions). This can be checked with periodic racing or time trials. This is variability is likely a function of both genetics and current fitness.

(3) Erring on the side of too little anaerobic training is always better. Remember that it’s like fire.

(4) Never do consecutive days of this hard anaerobic running. Buffer it before and after with an easy jogging day (or two).

(5) As I mentioned before, fine results can be achieved without ever doing a single session of this type of running. In my own preparations for a key 5k or 10k race I may only do a single workout like this because I’ve learned over the years that my body just doesn’t respond very well to many sessions of this type. I consider it one last honing of the edge before a big race.

(6) On the other hand, you may find that you respond well to this type of training. Good! You are lucky to be gifted with a genetic makeup that allows for considerable anaerobic capacity work. If you find this is to be the case, go ahead and do a few of these sessions each week in a month leading to a key race. Just remember to buffer the sessions with easy runs and that anything more than a few months of consistent anaerobic work will begin to seriously deteriorate your aerobic ability.

You may be wondering: if anaerobic running doesn’t develop speed, then what does? I’ll tell you in a future post.

(*) You’ll often see mention of how lactic acid is “built up” as a product of fast running. This isn’t really true. Remember that the lactate anion (C3H5O3-) is actually the fuel for anaerobic exercise. It’s counter ion, H+ (or a proton to chemists), is the bad actor that lowers the pH of your blood (more acidic) producing the nasty side effects.

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An avid runner’s approach to distance running

“How are you able to run so much? Don’t you get tired? I could never do that!” This or similar variants are common when someone learns that I am a runner and they ask how much I run.(*)  I do run a lot relative to, say, the US population but to be honest, I’ve never approached running with a do-or-die attitude, no zealotry, no obsession but at the same time, I am also not a novice.

I have studied the sport for more than 12 years now, both in my interactions with other runners (who range from those wanting to complete their first 5k to those who nearly broke the 4 minute mile in their prime), by carefully monitoring and observing my own running to see what works and what doesn’t,  by reading about elite distance runners, by studying the physiology of distance running and finally, by reading what great coaches have to say about the subject. In this, I’d say I’m an “avid” runner. I won’t proselytize about running’s superiority, I won’t go on weird mystical ramblings about mind-body-spirit connections felt during running, I won’t promise that X workout will provide Y result, I won’t tell you that you need to be running X amount of miles, in fact, in normal conversation, I won’t say anything about running if not asked about it.

What happens if you do ask? Perhaps you had the same response as quoted above, but were then intrigued about the idea of being able to comfortably run longer distances. Maybe you already run several days a week for 2-3 miles at a time. Great! I’d talk your ear off if you want to listen about a sensible way to proceed but in the meantime here are some bullet-points to get you headed in that direction.

(1) Running longer will not hurt you – running too many miles at too fast of pace can potentially hurt you.

(2) What is too fast? The easiest way I’ve found to explain what a normal easy/mileage run should feel like to those looking to make the next step is this: Let’s say your average run takes 30 minutes. Next time go out for 18-20 minutes, turn around and try to cover the same distance back home in the same 18-20 minutes. Did you do that? If you were a lot slower on the way back in, next time dial the pace back a bit. If you were a lot faster on the way back in, that’s fine, but you’ll benefit more if you make it roughly even – speed it up a bit next time. If you did run roughly the same amount of time back as you did out – good. How did you feel? Exhausted? Fresh as a daisy? Or pleasantly tired, i.e., you could probably run another 10-15 minutes at the same pace if needed but maybe not a lot more? If you answered “pleasantly tired” then you are doing high-end aerobic running which is going to provide maximum bang for your buck in terms of building the endurance and stamina required to do longer distance.(**) Granted, aerobic adaptations will occur at slower speeds, i.e., jogging, and jogging is great, but if you want to maximize potential both relatively quickly and safely, aim to be doing these high-end aerobic runs as the meat and potatoes of your running. Another caveat of this “out and back” scheme is that often the first several minutes might be a little slower simply because your body is warming up a bit, that’s fine (and actually encouraged), allow for that. Don’t force a preconceived pace on yourself.

(3) Run more often. Are you running 3-4 times per week? Great! Try upping it to 5 or 6 times per week. More aerobic exercise will build more and more endurance. Will you be sore initially? Probably a little. That’s OK, it will pass, I promise.

(4) Develop multiple routes of different length for different days. Instead of: Mon- 30 minutes, Tue- 30 minutes, Wed- 30 minutes, etc. all on the same stretch of street or trail – mix it up. Maybe: Mon- 20 minutes, Tue- 40 minutes, Wed- 30 minutes, Thu- 60 minutes, Fri- 20 minutes, etc. This provides a relatively safe way for you to test and stretch yourself to new longer distances and the following day you retreat back to a more comfortable mileage/time as recovery.

(5) How many miles should you run? I don’t know. You probably don’t either at this point. The beauty (and often also the frustrating part) of running is that it’s an experiment of one. We’re all slightly different yet the same basic physiology applies to all of us. I think the above general outline is a challenging yet safe way to increase your aerobic capacity and thus your ability to run longer. Will you overstep your bounds at points? Maybe, but I don’t think by much if you go about it sensibly. If you do, just dial the mileage/time back for a few days until you feel normal again. The thing NOT to do is religiously follow some mileage buildup scheme gleaned from a book or website.

(6) Is the 10% rule valid (the concept of only increasing your mileage by 10% per week)? Again, who knows. The more you can intuit from the feedback your body is giving you about how much you can handle, the better off you are. The flip side of this is that you shouldn’t make this argument as an out. Minor soreness in your legs after a longer run, especially when you are new to the longer runs, is to be expected. Don’t worry, your body will adapt over time. There’s a huge difference between being a little sore and being overtrained and you should learn to recognize that in your own body. This is part of the reason that I find modulation of distances from day to day to be good: stress, adaptation, stress, adaptation – longer run, shorter run, longer run, shorter run.

(7) What about hard workouts? Honestly, my advice is to get to the point where a 50-60 minute run on several consecutive days does not phase you in the least (both physically and mentally) before you start adding significant speed components to your running. Going at it as I’ve described above and hitting a good volume of time/mileage alone will get you a lot faster than you might think even without any notion of hard speed sessions.

(8) Consistency is key and take the long view. One run does not make or break you. At the same time, every morning you skip out on a run for no reason is another missed opportunity to put a drop in that big running bucket. Make it a routine. Good aerobic running as I’ve described above is a pleasant experience, not a punishing one.

(9) Keep a log of mileage and/or time run and jot some notes down about the weather and how you felt during the run. Use this data to look back on if you hit a rough several days or week – see if you can find a pattern and adjust accordingly. Similarly, when you hit a great patch of running it’s nice to look back and see what you were doing a week or two back that set you up for that great running.

(10) If you are relatively new to running, the first month or so of this is likely going to be less than pleasant. Stick with it – your ability to run aerobically does not increase linearly. Instead, there are plateaus and then breakthroughs. Many physiologists and coaches agree that it takes between 4 and 6 weeks of consistent running before you see a significant breakthrough to a new level of aerobic fitness. In my own experience, those jumps in fitness are exhilarating when they hit. As in finishing a run and saying to myself, “holy $hit, where the hell did that come from!”

(11) I’ve found the idea of “pushing from below” to be useful in running. What does that mean? It means always bite off just little bits to get to a new level – whether that be distance or speed. Don’t try to make giant leaps in mileage all at once. Don’t try to do more than two hard workouts per week. Don’t turn your harder workouts into races. Be slightly conservative, distance running is an ongoing project. If you eventually become interested in racing, it’s better to be 10% undertrained than 5% overtrained. Keep everything within yourself, etc.

(12) If you manage to implement these rough principles as a guide over the course of months and years, you will be shocked at how many miles you can handle and doubly shocked at how much faster the pace of those miles has gotten without any increase in perceived effort. THAT’S getting fit for distance running.


(*) The most common follow up is, “have you run a marathon?” Yes, but… gahh, there’s so much more to enjoy about running than marathoning.

(**) See this previous post for a general description of aerobic versus anaerobic exercise.

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Hybrid-electric supercar?

The video clip shown above is from the popular BBC program “Top Gear” where the latest and greatest of high-end automobiles are test driven, gushed over and made fun of based on the fantasies and peccadillos of the show’s three hosts. This clip in particular sparked my interest because the car in question is a hybrid-electric vehicle – in practice, not a whole lot different than a Toyota Prius. Much has been lauded about the emergence of fully electric cars from the Chevy Volt to the Tesla Roadster but I think this clip shows that the true power of an electric vehicle (EV) is perhaps not in having only an electrically driven motor, but by having an electrical motor and internal combustion engine (H-EV) work in perfect synergy through precise computer control. Watch and be amazed. I don’t think it’s hyperbole when host Jeremy Clarkson describes this strategy as completely changing the face of super-car motor sports. What I think is somewhat humorous, from the perspective of a chemist who works in a related field, is that the rechargeable lithium ion batteries used in this hyper-advanced car are likely still no different than those used in a laptop from 5-10 years ago.

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