Race Report: Fitness for Vitality 5K

Photo of Seward ParkAs I write this race report, I just flew over Seward Park here in Seattle. I’m on a one-night business trip to Washington, DC. I’ll fly in, attend a meeting tomorrow morning, meet some business colleagues over lunch and in the early afternoon, and then catch the evening flight back to Seatac. Hopefully, I’ll have time to get an easy run in tomorrow morning.

Earlier this morning, I raced the Fitness for Vitality 5-K race at Seward Park. Here in Seattle, the weather has been amazing– sunny days with high temperatures in the fifties. While it was chilly at the race start, the bright sunshine made it quite warm and plenty of folks were comfortably running in t-shirts and shorts.  Nevertheless, I’m never fond of races at Seward Park.  While it may look like a green oasis in Lake Washington, I think it’s a strange little peninsula– a bit like Mother Nature flipping me the bird.

I like to race a lot— particularly shorter races in the colder months and longer races in the summer. My thinking isn’t that I want to add to my t-shirt collection. Instead, it’s that racing is an incredible form of training— and there is a much greater temptation to dig really hard in a race than on any training run. This fits in quite well with my thoughts on polarized training.

My Slowest 5-K Race Ever

I knew that this was going to be a slow race. Two weeks ago, I woke up with a minor sore throat that moved into my chest over the next few days. It wasn’t one of those utterly disgusting colds with tons of mucus— but I had enough to create a bad cough that really interrupted my sleep.  I normally follow the “throat rule” for workouts– if the symptoms, are above my throat, I’ll do an easy workout but once they go below my throat, I usually take the day off.  Thus, I completely missed about five consecutive days of training.  By the end of last weekend, I had it pretty much beaten— I was still a bit congested and only had a bad cough in the early morning and bedtime.  So I could manage some easy workouts. By Thursday, I even felt good enough to do a lactate threshold assessment with my BSX Insight— and even repeated the test on Friday. Both of these tests were awful— I couldn’t even reach my 10K pace before I had to throw in the towel.  But I was careful not to run so hard that my cough would return.

Fast forward two days and I’m lining up for the race at 9:30am. Right off the line, I kept my pace at a moderate level and I let a bunch of eager runners zip past. By about a half-mile in, I started reeling in a number of runners. I was breathing really hard, but I could tell that my breathing was compromised. It just felt a lot harder to breath than normal. It wasn’t like running at altitude where the air feels thin but I don’t have trouble moving air in and out. Instead, it was more like my lungs were about half their normal size.

Passing the first mile marker, I looked down at my watch and it said 7:10. Whoa! Normally, in an open 5K, my pace is about 6:20-6:30, so I was 40 to 50 seconds per mile off my normal pace. Unfortunately, there was just no way that I could dig any deeper to speed up my pace. I made it past two more runners and then spotted the turnaround in the distance. By now, I was probably in about 10th place (this is a tiny local race, after all) and I thought for a moment how miserable the second half of this race was going to be. Past the two mile marker, I was starting to fade. I could tell that my pace was slowing but I was breathing about as hard as I could imagine. I could hear two runners in back of me and about a minute later, they both passed me. One of them was breathing really hard— I could tell that he was much less athletic than me and it was clear that he was beyond redline. As I neared the finish, I could hear a third runner slowly coming up on me but I was only about a quarter-mile from the finish. Rather than get caught, I dug deep and ran as hard as I could to the line.

My finishing time was 21:58— the slowest 5K I have ever run. This comes out to about a 7:05 pace, but I think that the race was marked short.  My pace was probably closer to the 7:16 average pace that my running watch recorded.

What’s Up Next?

Over the next few weeks, I need to drop back my running volume slightly and focus more on runs that will increase my lactate threshold. Instead of running eight miles a day for six days a week (my regimen before developing my chest cold), I’ll probably run 5-6 miles a day instead.  Put in weekly terms, instead of 50 miles a week, I’ll drop it down to about 30-35 miles a week. I’ll also shift my focus to slightly longer intervals at 5K pace with shorter recovery. This isn’t an abandonment of my polarized training strategy. Instead, the lower volume balances out a lot of other stresses in my life both from work (this is a busy time of year for me) and training (I need to focus more on cycling). At the same time, the change in intensity is a natural evolution from the faster, maxVO2 running efforts that I’ve been following. Today’s race was also a reminder about why these changes are important.

What kind of intensity will I be shifting to? I’m thinking that Stephen Seiler’s workout of 4×8 minutes on two minutes recovery seems about perfect. The goal in these workouts is to simply run the entire workout as fast as possible. According to Stephen’s research, there is something about the 8 minute interval length that evokes maximal overall fitness gains. Note that this intensity is still very consistent with the polarized training model because the efforts are still well-above lactate threshold (think 20-minute race pace as opposed to one-hour race pace).  In Stephen’s studies, this workout was done twice a week over the course of several weeks. Because I’m balancing two sports (running and cycling), I think that three hard workouts a week may be in order— one running (Tuesday), one cycling (Thursday), and one race on the weekend (running, cycling, or duathlon).  This isn’t a workout that I’ll just jump right in to, however.  Instead, I’ll start with longer recoveries (e.g. three or four minutes) and use my pace/watts to baseline my next workouts efforts.  Hopefully, my pace and watts will keep improving each week after I settle in to two-minute recoveries.

How’s that Cough?

After the race, my body left me a quick reminder: inflammation sucks!  My residual cough from last week’s cold never left entirely– and all that hard breathing from this morning’s race left it a bit irritated.  Also, the dry air on this airplane isn’t helping.  But I’m sure that I’ll feel better with a decent night of sleep.

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