Outdoors/Adventure

To improve your speed as a runner, try taking a mental trip to the beach

My dad has an anecdote about a proctologist friend of his. The story goes something like: the good doctor will be at a social event, like a dinner party. Someone will find out what he does for work and inevitably start to overshare about their own gastrointestinal issues.

“How do you handle that?!” my dad once asked.

“I go to the beach,” his friend replied, matter-of-fact.

My dad loves this approach. When sharing the story — which he has done multiple times, forgetting that he already told it to me, a trait my husband and stepdaughter inform me I inherited — he explains it is about deciding when and how to mentally check out and “be” somewhere else entirely.

I’ve been playing with adding in speed to my running. In the context of who I am as a runner, this is a big deal.

I have announced my adamant disinterest in being fast basically ever since I started running. I think it’s because as an adult beginner, running at all was completely mind-blowing to me. What made it possible for me to run longer than 30 seconds was an exquisite approach to pacing, which for me unlocked a world of possibilities.

I leaned into the strength of endurance, running longer and longer until I peaked with an iron-distance triathlon in 2015. I stubbornly adhered to a policy of not caring about my pace, and focusing instead on distance.

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Often my husband would come home from a run with a friend and relay that he’d gone faster than he normally would to keep up with them. Never me. I’d fall behind, sometimes far behind, just to preserve my own comfort during something already inherently uncomfortable.

I had years of this, and then came 2020. Enter: a year of a focused effort to lose excess fat. I’d discovered, like many people mid “deep” pandemic, that my sweatpants no longer fit. I’m skipping past a whole lot of work here, because bodies are very much designed to hang on to fat as an insurance policy, but in the end I did manage to get significantly leaner.

Part of how I did it? Reluctantly, I followed guidance to incorporate some speed into my running as a way to challenge and fire up my body’s metabolism. Basically, I tricked myself into finally experimenting with speedwork.

And it surprised me.

Here’s what I discovered: I didn’t need to go all out all the time to experience noticeable changes. I knew the guidance: don’t increase weekly distance by more than 10%, and don’t do more than 10% of weekly runs at a pace faster than endurance pace. Both of these rules of thumb maximize gains while preventing injury. Still, actually experiencing a major payoff for what felt like minimal investment was surprising.

As my weight started to go down, my pace accelerated further. Then came the day that after a normal 5-mile loop with a friend, she pointed out we were going a whole minute per mile faster than we had the prior year at the same time. We gab through our entire runs, which is the hallmark of an easy, endurance pace. I knew then that over time and incremental changes and efforts, I’d leveled up.

When I ran the Equinox Marathon nearly an hour faster than I had the previous time I’d done it, my interest was officially piqued.

What would happen if I intentionally focused on speed for its own sake? How much faster could I go, with proper training and support?

I’m starting a new training plan for a fast 10K in November. It’s my first-ever time intentionally training for speed versus distance. My husband designed the training plan for me as a gift; it’s up on my Google Calendar for reference.

The interesting thing about running fast? It’s an almost completely different, complementary experience to endurance running.

Endurance running is meditative. It’s the easiest form of challenge; at its best it feels floaty and strong. Its worst is sore, chafed, and plodding. The mental approach is about fine-tuning focus and maintaining a steady-state positivity. It is pacing through discomfort that increases exponentially proportional to the distance of the run.

Speed running? It’s about flashes versus steady-state thoughts. It’s about maintaining a consistent higher-than-endurance effort, even as that effort takes a different toll on my body the longer I’ve been in it. My 5K pace has the same nagging and annoying, but also exhilarating quality of getting a tattoo.

A long, slow endurance run pulls me deep into a moment. It has meditative quality to it. A speed run finds me increasing a more pinpointed focus; drawing steadily and increasingly rapidly from a bag of tricks as my mind works hard to convince my body I can keep up the effort even despite discomfort.

I see a chickadee, and think about how it doesn’t need to train for anything because it’s lived its whole life unburdened by the allure of modern conveniences and indulgences like Netflix and a home mortgage. I experience a momentary and intense happiness.

I pick an upcoming driveway and tell myself that surely I can keep up this pace until then — after the driveway passes, I’ll pick another set point.

And then, I go to the beach. No, I’m not a proctologist at a dinner party — hardly. But the mental trick works. For a fleeting second, I feel warm sun on my face and sand under my feet. Back in reality, I see the upcoming driveway I’ve locked my sights on, and am a little more freshly motivated to keep going.

Speed work will teach me something new in my life, and I’m looking forward to continuing to learn.

Alli Harvey

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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