How to Kill—Your 10k PR


Paladin Press is a publishing house that articulates, better than any other, the successful amalgamation of the first and second amendments to the Constitution. Should I want to booby trap my neighbor’s toilet, rig my household pet to be a homicide bomber, or blow up a city block using household cleaning chemicals, Paladin Press’ catalog is as good a place to inquire as any other (I haven't so-inquired, and I might be wrong—I might have to look elsewhere for pets-as-bombers). I can buy a “.50-Caliber Rifle Construction Manual—With Easy-to-Follow Full-Scale Drawings.” Or, “150 Questions For a Guerrilla.” More my style would be the publication entitled, “Gladiator Conditioning Course,” (This is a best-seller). I remember leafing through the catalog once and saw the very stark, to the point, title: “The Complete How to Kill Book.” No beating around the bush there. Right to the point. One might or might not be able to convict Paladin Press of any variety of things, but a lack of transparency of message is not among them.

I believe I’m going to host a camp up here in the high desert of Valyermo. The purpose of the camp will not be gladiator conditioning, rather to impart to attendees the unvarnished truth about running speed. Just the good stuff, with the rest boiled off. The camp will instruct and demonstrate the art of how to run fast. Nothing more. In keeping with other camps and workshops hosted at our compound here in Xantusia, I’ll tell you for free here, now, what I’ll demonstrate to you in person at a cost of many hundreds of dollars.

What do I mean by “run fast.” How fast? I’ll be blunt. I believe just about every reasonably fit male the age of 45 has the theoretical physiological capacity to run his age for a 10k, that is, a 10k in 45 minutes. Subtract 20 seconds for every year under 45, down to the age of 25, and add 20 seconds for every year over 45. Do the math, and you’ll see that according to my formula a 27 year old ought to be able to run a 39 minute 10k, and I mean almost ANY 27 year old. Likewise, the significant majority of 54 year old men ought to be able to run a 48 minute 10k. Women add 4 minutes.

“You’re grossly generalizing,” you might say. Yes, I am. “You have no independent, peer reviewed, published data on which you rely.” No, I don’t. Furthermore, it gets worse. Assuming you have no anatomical problems that keep you from training and running regularly, my contention is that 60 percent of those reading this are able to achieve what I describe above. Twenty percent cannot, that is, you have other things you’re good at. Running is not among your skills. However, that leaves another 20 percent, and you are capable of much, much more than the modest 10k speeds I published above. One out of every five men reading this can run 38 minutes for a 10k at age-45. Subtract or add 15 seconds per mile for every year older or younger, down to 25 and up to 65.

Yes, I’m saying one out of every five of you can run a 33-minute 10k at age-25, or a 35:30 at age-35. That, or faster. Women add 3:30 to this. Yes, this means one out of five women reading this can run a 39-minute 10k at age-35. You can still do something very few women achieve: run under 40 minutes past age-40.

If you don’t think you can achieve this, it’s only because you can’t conceive of that sort of speed based on your current conditioning, body structure, and experience. Your sedan can’t negotiate the oval at Daytona Speedway at 160mph. Give it to a NASCAR team and when they’re done with it you won’t believe what your little Ford can do. Of course, it won’t be street legal when they’re done.

That’s the sort of mind set you must have. You won’t be street legal when you’re done getting ready for your 10k onslaught. If you engage in what I propose below you’ll feel like you’ve jumped in head-first, and as the weeks go by the water increases and gains in speed and you’ll feel as if you’re swept along in the stream. At first, you’ll be the prime mover, dragging your body through the workouts. Weeks later, however, it’s your body that’ll be pulling you forward at speeds and efficiencies you wouldn’t have thought possible.

Now for all the caveats. Obviously, the older a person is the more evident the potential roadblocks. I know people who have the heart and lungs and legs but, alas, no longer enough cartilage in the knees. When I say a person has the inate ability required to perform a task, I mean his genes and receptors and processors that conspire to suggest and allow and trigger the engine and drive train to put out the horsepower are all there and ready to work. Obviously, you can’t drive the car very far or fast if it’s got a flat tire or a broken driveshaft. Only you can determine whether your “infrastructure” is ready for a campaign to demolish your running PRs.

The other unknown is the state of your heart and circulatory system. I am routinely advised of yet another personal friend who, though long in apparent top health, discovers a heart ailment. Often, it’s hereditary. Also often it’s the sort of malady that doesn’t manifest itself unless under a heavy load. If you want to run ultra fast, your heart is going to be under an ultra heavy load. I can’t warrant that running at such a load is good for you. I frankly haven’t noticed that those who’ve been top runners live longer than those who’ve been moderately active. In fact, as a layman I’d hazard a guess that you’d probably be healthier if you didn’t push the envelope the way I do, and the way I’ll describe below. If you think you’d like to see what you’re capable of anyway, you might consider a stress EKG before getting heavy into the high heart rate stuff.

First and foremost, I suppose this goes without saying, but, you’ve got to run every day, or just about. I’m not saying you can become an overcoming runner and still keep progressing as a swimmer or cyclist. You’ll have to throttle back on the other activities. Cross-training is good, however the best runners don’t cross train much. They’re running from 120 to 160 miles per week, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for other stuff. No, you don’t have to cease the other activities. However, you’re going to be running no less than 35 miles per week, and as much as 50 and 60 miles per week. So, some of the swimming and most of the cycling has got to give. No problem. You can pick your cycling back up quickly, within a few weeks, and still keep your newly gained running speed.

You don’t have to run 5 to 7 days per week. But you do if you want to reach your running potential. No other way around it. You’ll actually run more than once each day, on average. That’s because you’ll run twice a day on certain days. I try to run two-a-days 4 to 5 days a week when I’m engaged in a serious running campaign. What that means is, I actually perform a two-a-day once or twice a week (I fall off the wagon). The nice thing about the discipline of this is that you know you can’t run twice in a day if you don’t run once in the morning. That makes you get out in the morning. So, worst case, you at least get that one run under your belt.

I can’t tell you how much two-a-days helps, and that’s whether you’re trying to pick up your run or your swim. Any swimmer who’s achieved a high level of success would laugh at the idea of becoming really good without swimming twice each day. Likewise with runners. Very few can become national caliber, let alone world class, without running twice a day. Many run three times daily. Therefore, throwing in that second run once, or twice, or even three times per week, will go a long way toward helping you hit your goal.

You must run fast. Not every run. Not even every other run. Maybe not even in one run out of three. But, when you’re going to run fast, it’s got to be fast. It’s got to hurt. But here’s the thing about hurting. This also is trained. The ability to withstand pain is trained. At the beginning of every season when I was a competitive runner, I was not only slow I was a real wimp. My pain tolerance was untrained, and when those baroreceptors started firing I gave in quickly. However, as I got faster, and my ability to perform increased, my ability to maintain a high pain threshold for a longer period of time also increased. However, the only way your pain tolerance increases is to put yourself in a place of pain. Yes, you’re doing this precisely at a time when you can least stand it. However, you must just push through it the best you can. It’ll get better.

Do what your body allows. Back in the old days, Steve Prefontaine, Rudy Chapa and Alberto Salazar trained under Bowerman and Dellinger, and the mantra in Oregon was “Hard/Easy.” Every other day was hard, with an easy day in between. This works. Remember, though, these were college kids, with the ability to recover you may not have (and I surely don’t have) depending on your age. I find that for every hard day I need two easy days, on average. But, this will vary. Sometimes I’ll string two hard days in a row because my body is just ready for it. However, there will be other patches where my body just won’t be ready for a hard effort, and it’ll tell me so. Don’t misunderstand. There are times in the early season when my mind and my body are perfectly willing to go fast, but the fitness just isn’t there. No problem. Go fast anyway, and do what you can. That’s different than a body that simply is tired, and worn, perhaps fighting off an infection, and just has no zip. If this is ever descriptive of a day in your running future, don’t go fast. Do what your body wants. This may last a week, or even two. Even three. Don’t worry. It’ll come around again. Let it do so on its own schedule. I’ve gone twenty consecutive days, minus a day off or two, without running faster than a slow jog. My body always came out of it, and usually with a bang.

What do I mean when I write about your training, “You must run fast.”? I mean :30 to 1:30 per mile faster than you can hold for, say, a 10k. And one thing about fast running I’ll mention. Running fast is entirely different, qualitatively, from certain other hard efforts. I love to engage in mountain runs. I love to find a 6% or 7% grade and slog up for an hour, maybe 5 miles or so, and then return. It’s just about my favorite thing to do afoot, and I do it reasonably regularly. It makes me a stronger runner. However… this is not the same as fast running, and it won’t train you to run fast. If you want to run fast, you’ve got to run your fast runs—tempo runs, fartlek, intervals—on flat surfaces, with good footing. The terrain on which to do a fast, hard run with the most effort is an entirely flat run, because there’s nowhere to rest, nowhere to hide. These are the runs of truth, so you must practice running fast on this sort of terrain.

When I say “tempo run,” I’m describing what others might call a threshold run. This is a simulated race as part of a workout. You won’t run as hard in a tempo run as you would in a race, that is, you won’t go to the limit. But, you might run a 6-mile run and have the four middle miles be at a pace similar to your 10k pace. Or, you might warm up a bit and then go for 8 miles at your half-marathon pace.

That is separate from what running coaches call “anaerobic” work. Yes, threshold work has an anaerobic component to it, because you’re lactic acid is not getting buffered at the same rate it is produced. However, it’s not clearly, obviously, in-your-face anaerobic,. When running specialists say “anaerobic” work they mean running at a pace that’ll make you clearly uncomfortable.

There are two general categories of anaerobic workouts, those that are incorporated into a road run, and those you do on the track or other closed course. Fartlek workouts are fast sections of a road run interspersed with recovery sessions. For example, one minute on, one minute off. Or, it might be a minute on and two minutes off. Or, every other telephone pole is fast. Or, every other lifeguard station (if I’m running on the beach). The fast segment is going to be clearly faster than you can run for very long.

I usually prefer to run my anaerobic work on the track, because it’s measurable, like swimming in a pool as opposed to open water. I might run 10 X 400 meters with a 400 meter jog in between, at a pace :30 per mile faster than I can run for a 10k. Or, 12 X 300m with a 100m walk in between, at a pace 40sec or even one minute faster per mile than my 10k pace.

Why would one want to run this much faster than one’s race pace? A couple of reasons. First, this is the best way to explain to your mitochondria what sort of work it is you want them to perform. Second, there is an element of motor learning that you fast-forward when you run uncomfortably fast. A few days after such a workout you find you can run with much more economy, and I use that term the way running coaches use it, not the way physiologists use it. By “running economy” I speak of an economy of form, not of oxygen consumption.

I would refrain from too many of these types of anaerobic workouts. They are ballistic on your legs, and should not in my opinion be engaged in unless you’re really ready. How do you get ready, and how do you know you’re ready? A suggested progression follows, but you'll have to wait for tomorrrow's installment.


In each or any of the workouts that will follow, you’ve got two things you’re trying to achieve. First, you’ve just got to get your legs turning over at a pace they’re not comfortable with. Second, these fast efforts send signals that you really, desperately need to build the capacity to metabolize, to buffer, to deliver oxygen. These workouts quickly increase your capacity to consume oxygen and to deal with the consequences of metabolizing not in the presence of oxygen. We’ll take these twin jobs of highly-paced workouts in order.

So that you can run a 37-minute 10k, you’ve got to run 6-minute pace through the first three miles without feeling very stressed. Mile-1 of such an effort must feel like a warm-up. In order to run 6-minute pace easily, your legs must be capable of running a considerably faster pace for a shorter period while holding good form. To do this, you’ll need to run a faster pace yet for even shorter distances while admittedly struggling to hold form. So, running this 37-minute 10k might call for the following workouts, in this order:

• 6 mile run, the middle three miles tempo, at 6:00-6:15 pace (at or just slower than your race pace for a 37-minute 10k).

• 4X800m in 2:45, with a slow, 5-minute 800m jog in between. This is 5:30 pace, and should be a bit uncomfortable to run. You’ll find it difficult to hold form. Your legs will be a bit sore the next day.

• 8X400m in 80sec, with a 400m jog in 2:30 in between. This is 5:20 pace, and will be a painful workout. It’ll be hard to hold form.

• 4X800m in 2:40, with a slow, 5-minute 800m jog in between. This is again 5:20 pace, but you’ll find it easier to hold form this time around, as these quicker-paced runs yield surprisingly fast results, at least in the area of motor learning.

• 6 mile run, the middle three miles tempo, at 5:50-6:00 pace. This will be a faster run, with better form, and more even splits, than your first effort at this.

All of this might be achieved in two weeks, two and a half. You might then choose to repeat the process. But you see the method. Three different types of speedwork, three different speeds, each with a job to perform. One of these workouts, the repeat 400m session, has as its main job just getting you prepared for another style of workout, which in turn prepares you to run your race pace with good form and low stress. But there’s nothing magical about 400m and 800m. You might choose to do repeat miles. Or repeat 600m sessions. One of my favorite workouts is repeat 300m on the track, with a 100m walk in between (I walk the first curve).

Or, take your speedwork to the road. Do 8 miles, the first two as a warm up, the last one as a warm down, the middle 5 miles as two minutes on, three minutes off (that is, you run faster pace for two minutes, and then slow down to recover for three minutes). Do this with a buddy, so that you can challenge each other.

There are other ways to teach your body to run a faster pace than is currently comfortable for you. A star of yesteryear in California high school track and field is former world class duathlete Paul Thomas. Paul is currently sales manager for Crank Sports (E-Gel) but in 1987 was California state 3200m champion (8:53) and 1600m runner up (4:08). His secret? Just do strides after every run. Perhaps 8 or 10 strides, each one 80m to 120m long. Not hard. Just regularly, after almost every run. The point is to spend some part of your workout running a pace faster than you're comfortable with. Same sort of idea.

This can be reduced to a very few bullet points. In order to run fast, and I mean really fast—faster than you every thought you could—you should carefully consider the following:

• Get into the daily-running habit. Average running at least 4 days out of every 7, preferably 5-6 days out of 7.

• Run twice a day occasionally (but never two hard sessions in a day). Your other daily run (it doesn’t matter whether this is the first or second run) can be short, and should be easy. Try to do 2 or 3 of these per week, bringing your average number of runs per week up to between 6 and 9.

• Run on straight, flat surfaces when running a higher intensity run. This will keep you honest.

• Inject speed. It is not necessary to run on the track. However, it is most profitable, in my view, to run with three levels of pace: your race pace or thereabouts; shorter sessions at a pace roughly 5% faster than race pace; and even shorter sessions at 10%, or so, faster than race pace.

• Run with others. Especially when running the fast stuff.

• Run with good form. As it becomes more apparent to you what good form looks and feels like, jealously work to keep it. Don’t allow your form to fall apart when you’re tired, and as you adopt good form use it for all your runs, even your easy runs. Don’t revert to lazy running form.

• Lose weight. No simple way to put this. Just lose weight. Just do it. Lose weight until you have no more to safely lose. The less you weigh, the faster you’ll go.

• Learn to exert. Learning to run fast is a painful process. Once you’re fit, it’s less painful or, perhaps, it’s less apparent because you’re pain tolerant.

One final thought. With increased expectations, and with the execution of an aggressive plan to meet those expectations, comes increased risk. I don’t just mean risk of a heart ailment, although that’s certainly a possibility I’d take seriously if I were you. I’m talking about risk of an injury. When you undertake the sort of ambitious program described above injury aversion techniques increase in importance by an order of magnitude. Stretching, warm-up and warm-down, core strength exercises, all become necessary, instead of recommended. You’ll need to buy new shoes more frequently, because you’ll no longer be able to nurse an old pair along. You might need orthotics. You’ll have to weigh these injury aversion techniques as you monitor your daily recovery.

And, you’ll have to know when to throttle back on speed sessions, and you should be willing to do so. As previously noted, for any number of reasons I’ve taken two or three weeks at a time running no faster than a jog, because my body just wasn’t in the mood.

Once you start on a spate of speedwork, you’ve got about 3 months, maybe 4 months, worth of upward progression. Then, you’ve got to call it a season. You can continue to race successfully for many weeks afterward, and the racing itself consists of enough speed to carry you through a couple of months of fitness. Then, it’s time to give your body a bit of rest, and revert to the long, slow mountain runs, or meadow runs, or wherever it is you do these sorts of runs where you live. Twice each year you can embark on a campaign described above. No more. You may notice steady improvement, and more impressive PRs, for several years if you’re sensible and sober on the one hand, and disciplined and willing to work on the other.

Where you fit your bike and run into this is your problem. You might decide that a season of run-specific training each year is a good way to get things going, especially if you do it during a time when cycling is not a good option because of inclement weather or the shortness of daylight.