Monday, 30 March 2009

Jack Daniels Primer #2-- Counting Your Steps

How can you spot an experienced runner from distance? Is it her speed? Her physique? Her clothing? Perhaps, but I would say it's something more basic and, in fact, subconscious to the viewer. It is her cadence. At any speed, in any clothing, and in a wide variety of body shapes, our eye can tell the difference between a beginning runner and someone who has been at it for a while. The secret is in the cadence: experienced runners, almost universally, will have a far quicker cadence than a beginning runner, and that cadence will be remarkably uniform at all speeds, from jogging to racing a mile.

Jack Daniels began wondering about the problem cadence-- whether there was, in fact, an ideal cadence for optimal runner performance-- over 20 years ago. As a result, he decided, while watching the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles with his wife (who acted as his assistant),to actually count the number of steps that Olympian runners from 800m to the Marathon typically took while competing. He (or rather they) discovered that there was a remarkable uniformity when it came to turnover among the worlds best runners. All of them-- male or female, short or tall-- took between 180 and 200 steps per minute, with the higher numbers recorded at the lower end of the distance range. He wasn't able to say precisely why, but he had obviously discovered a manifestation of some very basic physiological (probably neurological) principle. No runner, after all, is ever told, or ever consciously attempts, to take between 180 and 200 steps per minute; and yet here were the best distance runners in the world, all turning over more or less in sync. Armed with his data, Daniels then proceeded to count the steps of less accomplished runners (typically, those newest to the sport)and found that there cadences were typically much slower-- sometimes as slow as 160 steps per minute.

Since I started coaching beginning runners-- both masters runners and kids-- I have been intrigued by Daniels' findings. On counting my runners steps, I was able to confirm Daniels' original findings-- beginners typically stepped more slowly than more experienced runners, even when they were able to run faster than their more experienced team mates. Furthermore, I noticed that, with few exceptions, beginners would increase their cadence with their experience level until they moved into the magical range. I would often become aware of this without even looking for it, particularly in the case of kids. Now, some beginning runners had higher cadences than others (occasionally even approaching 180 steps per minute), and some experienced runners had cadences slightly below 180 steps per minute at slower speeds (including, interestingly, Dylan Wykes, whose cadence while in college did not surpass 180 steps per minute until he reached 5mins per mile). However, there remained a very strong correlation between experience and cadence level.

The question many runners ask when offered this information is: what can I do if my cadence is slower than 180 steps per minute? The short answer is, of course, simply run more and be patient. However,this is a trickier problem for that small minority of more experienced runners who still stride slowly; and, contrary to common sense, it doesn't help to try to simply take more steps. When any runner tries to consciously increase turnover beyond their intuitive range, they typically chop their stride unnaturally, or else speed up. (Go ahead, try it.) If there is way to address this problem in relatively experienced runners (and I'm not convinced there is an easy solution), I suspect it may have to do with improved core strength and running posture. I've noticed that slower steppers tend to have a little more forward lean when they run, and that if they concentrate on "running tall"-- that is, pushing the hips forward, causing the heal to recover more quickly after toe-off-- their stride rate will often increase. It does no good, of course, to attempt this new posture without the strength to support it for long periods of time; hence, the need to address core strength.

So, have fun counting your and your running partner's stride rates on your next run (I know you will)! And next time you think you've spotted a "real" runner at a distance, count his or her steps-- and don't be surprised at the number.

Next week, look for that profile of master's ace Agathe Nicholson (who is happy to report that her last long pre-Boston marathon session is now in the books!)

Monday, 23 March 2009

Bridging the Seasonal Training Divides

Any serious runner who trains in a true four-seasons environment will know that different climatic conditions produce their own unique challenges. Summer requires acute attention to proper hydration as well as the risks of heat stress and skin damage, while winter demands some ingenuity when it comes to dress, footwear and workout planning, and may even require complete escape via the treadmill, indoor track or, for the elite athlete, warm-weather training venue. Seasonality, however, offers another challenge that many athletes may not have taken sufficient account of-- the challenge of navigating safely between the major seasons.

In my long experience as an athlete, the most dangerous times in the training year where sudden injuries are concerned are the "transitional" months-- March and December at most northern latitudes. During my peak years, I was lucky to have been almost completely injury-free; however, of more serious injuries I did sustain (those requiring more than a week of down time) all occurred during these two months, with 3 occurring between March 10 and 17! I've been less systematic in keeping track of my athlete's patterns of injury (there being relatively few injuries to deal with in a given year, thankfully), but I think there are reasons for all runners to be cautious during these months. And, paradoxically, there may be even greater reason for athletes who have trained well through the winter to be wary in the months of March and April in particular.

Almost all running injuries are caused my mal-adaptations of one kind or another-- that is, by a failure of the body to respond properly to the introduction of a training stimulus. The most obvious reason our bodies fail to adapt properly to a training stimulus, breaking down in injury instead, is the speed and extent of the introduction of the stimulus in question. For instance, the average runner will become faster with the introduction of higher training volumes and more intense bouts of training; but, if increased volume and intensity are introduced suddenly, the body's capacity to adapt to the new stimulus may fail, usually at the level of our muscles or tendons, resulting in the debilitating pain commonly referred to as an "overuse" injury (but perhaps more accurately referred to an "failed adaptation" injury, as most runners can handle much more "use" than their experience tells them, provided it is introduced gradually enough). The changing seasons, and particularly the transitions into and out of winter conditions, entail some sudden changes that can overwhelm the body's adaptive responses and lead to injury.

The transition to winter running, first of all, entails an often very sudden move from running on softer surfaces to running on pavement and/or ice and snow. The onset of winter for many also occurs at the end of a hard racing season, which is often followed by a break from, and the subsequent reintroduction of, training. These and other factors, such as the greater likelihood of becoming sick with a virus, the stress of preparing for seasonal social gatherings, and even, for some, seasonal mood disorders, make December a minefield of sudden changes for the serious runner.

The transition from winter to spring-- often just as sudden-- means the generally safer move from harder to softer running surfaces, but holds its own set of risks, particularly for the runner who has trained consistently through the winter. During the first blissfully warmer days of spring, it is easy for the fit runner to unintentionally increase his average training speeds, often before access to softer surfaces has become available. The winter-fit athlete, champing at the bit for the start of the spring racing season, may also begin to attack his harder sessions with renewed gusto. Winter-weary runners may also attempt to will the onset of spring weather by dressing for it at the first sign, suddenly exposing working muscles and tendons to single-digit temperatures.

No matter how well prepared for these transitional months, they will always present special risks. At no other time of year do we confront so many basic changes to our training regimes that are not of our own initiating. And, if we are rash enough to introduce sudden additional changes at this time of year, we are doubly at risk. The best defense against the pitfalls of the seasonal transition is added caution and heightened awareness. Runners should take new aches and pains more seriously at these times of year, and be prepared to make a hasty detours onto the elliptical trainer or into the pool. Buying a little extra time to adjust to these rapid changes in our training environment while trying to maintain as much of our hard won winter fitness as possible is the surest way to bridge these seasonal divides and stay on course to meet our spring and summer racing goals.

Next week, another P-K profile, this one on remarkable, late blooming master’s athlete, Agathe Nicholson, who is in the final stages of preparing for her second marathon and her first trip to Boston.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Jack Daniels Primer #1 and P-K Profile #2-- Emily Tallen

This week: Some thoughts on Jack Daniels and the enduring appeal of this emeritus professor of American distance coaching; and, another P-K profile, this one featuring Emily Tallen.

Daniels for the Ages

As it happens, I had been re-reading sections of senior U.S. coach Jack Daniels’ 1998 classic Daniels’ Running Formula (2nd Edition in 2005) and thinking about starting a regular section here in the blog dedicated to explicating some of the key elements of his approach to training, when someone sent me a link to a series of video interviews with the man himself that have been running for the past month on the running website Flotrack, entitled Thirsty Thursdays with Jack Daniels. This was all the extra impetus I needed to get down to it. I want to be begin by saying a little about Daniels’ unique approach to periodization and conclude with a comment about his personal style as revealed in the charming little Thirsty Thursday segments.

Approaches to periodization (i.e. the yearly cycling of training emphases used by coaches to promote the continuous, all-round development and timely peaking of athletes) have been changing somewhat over the past few years, but there remains a fairly widespread and long-standing consensus among coaches—one that probably has its roots in the ground-breaking theories of the great New Zealand coach, Arthur Lydiard—concerning when to introduce faster paced training (i.e. at mile race pace or faster). In most programs, particularly school-based ones, faster running is typically introduced immediately preceding and even during the main racing season. The reasoning here is fairly intuitive: You run your fastest speeds in training around the time you want to run your fastest speeds in competition. As it happens, the only coach I’ve ever discovered who has systematically challenged this common sense is Jack Daniels. Daniels programs typically recommend that majority of the faster running be done during the earlier training phases (during the winter months in most of North America), with longer and slower tempo runs and less intense “cruise” sessions during the actual racing season. The time in between is taken up with the most intense kinds of training-- longer intervals. But, why would a runner what to run faster in training at a time of year when his important competitions—the ones he wants to be most “sharp” for—are still months away; and, why would he choose to train less intensely at a time of year when intensity would seem to be at a premium?

To understand Daniels’ answer to these questions one needs to understand his famous “formula” itself. The genius of Daniels is that he has been able to, with considerable accuracy, isolate the physiological adaptations associated with training at particular speeds for given durations. For practical purposes, he isolated four different running speeds that, in general, provoke four different types of adaptations in the trained body. (In the interest of brevity, I’ll leave it to the reader to pick up his/her copy of the book or go on-line to get the details here.) According to Daniels, the benefits of faster running are that it encourages the development of optimal biomechanical “running economy” through the promotion of strength, balance and relaxation. For Daniels, then, faster running—which must necessarily be done with longer recoveries, in order to prevent fatigue from reducing one’s speed— is best used as a basis for the most intense and race-specific kinds of training that runners will do—i.e. “interval” training, which involves running at around 95% of maximum aerobic capacity for up to 15 minutes total in a single session. Ideally, he reasoned, a coach would want to position a cycle of faster running before a period of more intense interval training in the yearly scheme, so that an athlete enters this most difficult and potentially risky phase of his training with optimal bio-mechanical economy; thus, faster running should seasonally precede interval training, and less intense "cruise" training should be the mainstay of the competitive phase.

To this imminently sound bit of reasoning I would add the following argument for keeping faster running out of the racing phase, particularly for school-age runners, who are typically competing at the middle distances: Racing itself involves faster running. During a racing phase, runners don’t really need any additional familiarization with the feeling of trying to run fast, and adding yet more faster running into the program while athletes are already running all-out once or twice per week--and tend as a result to be feeling highly charged and motivated to compete-- risks compromising their racing performances, and may put them at greater risk of injury. My approach is to allow the races themselves to provide any necessary re-familiarization with the feel of faster running (or, “sharpening”), keeping the workouts less intense. Ideally, by the time the racing season arrives, most of the benefits of both hard and fast training will already have been realized (the “hay”, so to speak, will already be safely “in the barn”), and there should be no need to worry about fitness loss through reduced training intensity. While ideal for age-class runners, who typically have a well defined competition phase, I've found this general approach to be highly effective for older runners training for the longer distances too.

It has therefore been my practice for years to break with the conventional approach of assigning longer and slower training in the winter and shorter and faster training in the spring and summer. For younger athletes and middle distance athletes in particular, the period December to the end of February is taken up with faster hill repeats and track sessions at mile/1500 race pace, which immediately precedes the hardest training of the year—the six to eight weeks from early March to late April, which are taken up with longer track interval sessions and tempo/fartlek workouts.

In a rare section in the book on youth development, Daniels even suggest that this “speed before intensity” approach to periodization is perhaps the best basis for the macro-cycling of young athletes. What holds for a single season, he suggests, might also hold for an athlete’s early years as a whole. It is perhaps best, he argues, for young athletes to spend greater periods of their early years trying to run fast than trying to go long and hard. Coaches of young athletes, he suggests, might consider keeping total running volumes and intensities low in the early years and increase them step-wise as an athlete matures.

Anyone who reads Daniels book, or watches him in any of the above mentioned interviews, however, will discover that, with him, there are few hard and fast rules. Daniels has firm and well supported opinions on most running matters; but, at 76, and after more than 40 years of total immersion in the science and culture of distance running, he has developed a gentle and patient touch (perhaps this was always his style). When asked in one of the video interviews about his main goal as a coach, he answers, in effect, that he would simply like to encourage athletes to want to train by creating an appealing environment within which to do so. It would seem that, after all these years, he has come to realize that the genius of coaching resides less in the details of program construction and more in the ability instill a enthusiasm for the training process. As a career exercise physiologist, he clearly would not want to discount the value of sound methods; but, he seems to have realized that a welcoming environment, social and otherwise, is perhaps just as essential for keeping athletes committed to the longer term-- a vital consideration in this most demanding and patience-testing of sports. In these interview segments in particular, Daniels exudes a personal warmth and self-effacing humour that belie his now great authority in the sport. At the very moment when demand for his advice is at its peak, and when he could, if he chose, wield his influence with considerable force, he appears content simply to gently advise, and to speak only when asked. He appears, at his great age, simply to enjoy the privilege of spending time in the presence of runners. To my eye and ear, he offers a model of aging gracefully and well, and presents a living testament to the benefits of a life driven by intellectual curiosity and intense social engagement. He just happens also to be one of the world's foremost authorities on running.

P-K Profiles# 2—Emily Tallen

For those familiar with women’s distance running in Canada, Emily doesn’t require much introduction. (For her P.B.’s and other vitals, see the “Athletes” section.) Emily started in the group in 2006 following a very difficult attempted transition from high school to collegiate running which ended with her more or less abandoning the sport. Emily won a full scholarship to Providence College in Providence, R.I., which was and remains one of the premier small schools in the NCAA, with a consistent—indeed multi-decade—record of top individual and team performance under head coach Ray Treacy. Providence also now boasts a top-notch post-collegiate group under coach Treacy, whose members are among the very best in the U.S. Thus, while she was certainly not the only runner in the school's history to experience difficulty—no program, after all, works for every runner— Emily’s experience at Providence was something of an anomaly; she ultimately failed to flourish there, eventually done-in by a hail of injury problems that beset her almost from the moment of arrival.

After relocating to Kingston following a year at teacher’s college in London, Ontario, Emily met group member Pat McDermott when both were working in a local high school. Pat, the subject of P-K profile # one, and an enthusiastic promoter of both serious running and the P-K group, set to work encouraging Emily to take another shot at racing. Being fellow artists, and in similar running shape at the time, Emily and Pat would become regular training partners following his successful efforts to get her to contact me and join the group in the spring of 2006.

Emily’s experiences at university had made her reticent about establishing new goals and risking renewed disappointment and heartbreak should things fall apart again. My sense at the time was that she had all but resigned herself to the loss of her identity as elite runner, and had become content to pursue other life interests, such as her art and teaching. I wasn’t entirely sure why she decided to throw her lot in with the group and make another attempt at exploring her potential in the sport; but, knowing her better now, I think her pride, competitive drive, genuine love of the sport (she is a fan as well as a competitor), and her memories of junior stardom, combined to induce her back into the fray one last time.

As an age-class athlete, I would describe Emily as something of an over-performer. In spite of, in my view, questionable coaching, Emily had managed to win several provincial high school titles and one Canadian junior title. The limits of her high school coaching were revealed, however, in her style of racing-- which involved charging the first part of her races, whatever the distance, races at speeds close to her 800m race pace and attempting to hang on for the win (which she could often do in weaker fields)-- and in the fact that her personal bests where set in her second year of high school. Through no fault of her own, Emily would enter the collegiate ranks somewhat unprepared—both physically, and in terms of her knowledge of high level training—for the reality that would await her. It is conceivable that she might have found her bearings and prospered in some other university program; but, this would have been at the indulgence of a coach prepared to thoroughly re-educate her as an athlete. At the vast majority of top NCAA Division One programs, this is a luxury that no young runner should ever expect. Athletes who are talented enough to win scholarships to these programs are expected to know the rudiments of high level training, and to hit the ground running, literally and figuratively. It was Emily’s misfortune at that time to have the proven talent to win an NCAA D-1 scholarship, but not the broad-based preparation for training and competition required to prosper at this level.

I was to conclude all of this after a year or so of watching Emily train and race, and after having come to know her better personally. What I saw and during this time was a healthy looking and powerful runner with a smooth and beautifully balanced stride. In her now three years in the group, she has yet to sustain an injury requiring more than a few days down-time, and very few of those to boot. It was inconceivable to me that a runner like this could have sustained four stress fractures in as many years of running. And the athlete I came to know on a personal level was intelligent, determined, and highly coachable, albeit not as knowledgeable about running and her own responses to training as I would have expected from an athlete with her level of experience. I was not in the least surprised that, on less than a year of very moderate but consistent training, Emily had reached the rank of national level, with 6th place finishes at the nationals in track and X-C. In this short period of time, she had turned back the clock and placed herself once again in the competitive mix— just about where, had she been better prepared, she should have found herself during her first or second year of collegiate running.

Like most working runners her age, Emily has had her share of minor setbacks—an ill-timed virus here, a bad bout of asthma there—that have forced some detours in her progress over the past two years. But, like the vast bulk beneath the visible tip of the iceberg, there has been substantial progress in her fitness, and flashes or real brilliance in training, beneath the surface of her race performances, which have still remained very steady (and include a commanding win at the provincial X-C championships last fall, a 5th place at the nationals, and a 1:16:40 Half Marathon in Florida in January of 09).

As Emily prepares for her first marathon this spring in Ottawa, my belief that the best for her is yet to come has never wavered. I am often impatient when well-meaning observers comment positively on her race results to date. What they see is a former high school star who came back from the precipice to enjoy a successful senior elite career on the roads, track, and trail. What I see, on the other hand, is an athlete with the potential to perform shoulder-to-shoulder with the top Canadian women over the longer distances (5k to Marathon), and with the potential to win national championships and represent the country at the highest levels internationally. It seems only a matter of time.

Monday, 9 March 2009


Weekend Racing--Dylan at NACAC X-C

This week, some racing to report on—Dylan’s sojourn to Jacksonville, FLA with the national X-C squad—and the first of a series of profiles on P-K athletes (see the next section below), which I think will be of interest to current members of the group in particular.

Dylan traveled with a full national team contingent to Florida this past weekend to compete at the North American, Central American, and Caribbean Athletic Association Championships. Participation at this event was meant to be a kind of dry run (dry being the operative word for an X-C race in South Florida at this time of year!) for the World Championships in Amman, Jordan at the end of the month. This championship is a relatively new one, and has been dominated, as it was again this year, by teams from the U.S. and Canada.

A midday start insured that the Senior Men’s race would be a warm one, with the temperature peaking in the low 80F range. The race started at a moderate pace before a U.S. runner made an early attempt to steal the race. Breaking alone from a chase group that included several of his Canadian teammates, Dylan caught the early leader before half way and proceeded to lead the race himself. Noticing that he was the lone red vest with four U.S. runners in tow, he settled into the group and let the Americans control the pace, hoping for strong final km to claim the championship. However, when eventual winner, American Stephen Pifer, initiated a strong push after 5k, Dylan found himself unable to cover and was forced to settle for 2nd, with the other Americans 5-20 seconds adrift in places 3 through 5. Despite feeling strong a fit during the race, Dylan felt the heat may have cost him in the final 10mins, and said he felt unwell for the rest of the day. It’s no secret to those of us who have been training at these latitudes this particular winter that conditions have not been optimal for preparing for fast race in the Floridian spring! All things considered, Dylan is well now placed to enter the next phase of his program, which will consist of a couple of more weeks of heavy sledding (figurative only, we’re hoping) here in Kingston before heading to California for the first of what we hope will be a series of 5 and 10k track races, also in California in late April/early May (much will depend on the results of this first race, as a mentioned in an earlier post). After this first race, Dylan will head to Flagstaff, Arizona for 5 weeks of warm weather/altitude training, during which he will be living and training with several other Canadians also aiming for fast track times in California. During his time in the desert, I will ask Dylan to send some posts, and perhaps some pictures, to include in this blog.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Where have all the (serious) runners gone?

I ended last week’s entry with a promise to expand a little on my claim that runners like Dylan Wykes—former age-class middle distance standouts attempting to become world class senior distance runners—have become increasingly rare in North America over the past 20-odd years, and to offer an explanation as to why. As it happens, this discussion provides the perfect segue to the second thing I want to do in the blog this week, which is to formally welcome the new athletes who have signed on since the launch of the site. The new members are a mix of male masters athletes still interested in striving for new or age-graded personal bests, and much younger-- again male-- athletes attempting to launch careers at the senior elite level. This self-selected sample offers, I think, an interesting snap-shot of the state of the sport in this country at the moment.

The state of distance running in North America (note: Canada and the U.S. can be treated together here, although with allowances for the recent resurgence of American running) presents something of a paradox. While the sport is seeing unprecedented numbers of participants in the kids competitive and adult recreational categories, an erosion of depth in the senior elite ranks (particularly pronounced among women) that began in the late 1980s/early 90s from a post-war peak in the mid-1980s has continued more or less unabated through this first decade of the new century. There are tentative signs that this decline may just now have begun to rebound, particularly in the U.S.; but, the contrast between the elite scene of today and that of the early to mid-80s is still clearly marked in almost every conceivable measure. Whether in terms of the numbers of sub-2:20 male marathoners/sub-2:35 women marathoners, or in terms of the performance gap measured against world standards, high performance distance running in North America is simply not what it used to be. While North American athletes sometimes appear near the top of championship results lists—such as when Deena Drossin and Mebretom Keflezighi claimed medals for the U.S. in the 2004 Athens Games—the depth of performance at the national level in both Canada and the U.S. reveals a distinct shortage of younger athletes poised to take these athlete’s place when their careers inevitably end. North American distance running seems to be perpetually 2 or 3 athletes away from complete oblivion at the international level, due to an extreme shortage of serious national level athletes capable of forcing one another to improve to the next level.

This discrepancy between the numbers of recreational adult runners and the number of serious racers, including elites, is particularly acute, and is clearly reflected in the dramatic slowing of average finishing times in road races over the years. It would seem that , among adults, including those of prime sporting age, distance running is in the process of being “de-sportified”. For adults, running is, in other words, rapidly becoming an activity pursued for largely extrinsic, non-performance related reasons, such as weight loss, social bonding, tourism, and the enhancement of psychological well being. Some of this is, of course, the inevitable consequence of such factors as an aging population and the active promotion for profit of the activity to the broader public, and to formerly inactive women in particular, through advertising and mass culture (see, e.g., the “Oprah Effect” following her foray into marathon running). Much of this shift is, of course, entirely to be welcomed, since it has been associated with a popular turn to increased physical activity during an epoch of mass obesity. There is, moreover, no reason that such a trend should have been associated with a decline in the pursuit of running as a serious sport, particularly when we consider the fact that it has been accompanied by a wave of increasing exposure to the sport among school-age children. (As I said in an earlier post, I come from an era when very few kids tried distance running, and the sport had virtually NO public profile.) On the face of it, one might just as easily have predicted a boom in serious competition as a result of this combination of running’s increased public profile and the growth in the number of kids trying the sport.

Yet, such a boom has not occurred—quite the opposite, as I have suggested. As a sport (rather than as a “fitness” recreation), distance running in North America has become increasingly like soccer— a children’s activity that is largely adult-initiated and adult-organized (notwithstanding the increased interest in over-40 competition, of which more below). As with soccer, millions of North American kids may run in races every year, but few know anything about, watch, or are generally “fans” of, the sport at the elite level— the way they are with, for instance, basketball, football, baseball, hockey, or even triathlon.

There are, I think, some clear reasons for the failure of this twin boom of adult recreational and kid’s competitive running to produce a growth in serious adult participation, and elite development in particular. As it happens, the aggressive marketing of running as a primarily “lifestyle” activity for adults, and the mass enrollment of children in club and school competitions, have worked, in their own particular ways, to undermine rather than promote running as a serious sport for adults.

The de-emphasis of road races as sporting contests in favour of their promotion as fitness or fund-raising “events” has removed the element of intimidation for the average person, and so swelled the total number of adult participants; but, this marketing strategy has also made running increasingly less compelling to younger athletes-- less exciting and interesting. Young runners can be forgiven if they grow up thinking of road racing as something only people their parents age do to keep in shape, or to raise money for charity! Far less available today are the narratives and images that inspired my generation of school-age runners to want to become long distance runners, and marathoners in particular. Media coverage of running as a sport has all but disappeared, or else has been shunted to the margins—to the back pages of mainstream running magazines, or to websites for the self-selected “hard core” (the latter having probably saved the sport from complete eclipse in the eyes of younger athletes.)

Meanwhile, the much greater and earlier formalization of participation for young runners these days— which, when both primary schools and clubs get into the act, can lead to year-round serious training and competition for the most precocious—contributes to a situation in which, by the end of high school or university, many of the top performers feel “tapped-out” , generally uninterested in pursuing the sport at the senior level, and/or simply anxious to “get on with their lives” (even if this simply means getting a routine job, going to graduate school and/or socializing more with friends). At the same time, by the age of 17 or 18, many others with longer term potential will have long since abandoned any idea of becoming elite runners, believing their failure to achieve immediate, age-class stardom to be the final verdict on their potential.

Clearly, the relative decline of distance running as a serious sport in North America has many other potential explanations, such as the mass entry of East African runners into the sport and the prevalence of doping, both of which have contributed to the vastly increased gap between national level performances and truly world class standards for almost every country on earth, and which have made the pursuit of elite level performance seem perhaps futile for the even the most manifestly gifted young North American athletes. And, for Canada in particular, we might add declining funding for sport development and national team travel. However, since the decline in question has been more pronounced in certain areas than others—i.e. within the longer distance disciplines, and in road racing in particular, as compared with middle distance running, which is also subject to African dominance and systematic doping, yet continues to attract a fair number of participants at the national level—I think the variables I suggest remain central to the discussion.

Turning to the example of Dylan, what makes him relatively unique in the North American context today, and a kind of throw-back to an earlier period in the history of this sport—a period in which North American distance runners stacked-up, on average, much better globally—is that, instead of deciding to either give up the sport at the end of his age-class and school-based career, or to continue to compete within his accustomed event range, he has decided to deepen his involvement in the sport and try his hand at the longer distances, and on the roads, in an effort to realize his full athletic potential. He has decided, in other words, to train harder than he ever has at the very moment when top runners his age typically decide they have had enough, either because they “don’t have the time”, or, at age the age of 21 or 22, and having trained and raced hard since sometimes as young as 13, because they feel they are as good as they can ever be. Today, runners like Dylan are the product of an willful overcoming of the kinds of obstacles I have discussed. The appearance of runners like him occurs in spite of the current state of things in the sport, rather than because of any system for encouraging their development. This means that we must now rely on our young athletes to be remarkable in some respects simply in order to take the first step towards elite status— that is, actually sticking with the sport and training hard for 8-10 years—never mind to become world class.

The first of the problems I identify—the “de-sportification” of road racing—is the most difficult to reverse. I sense, however, that the by-the-bootstraps resurgence of American distance running—a process spearheaded by the advent of privately sponsored and expertly coached “training enclaves” for post-collegiate athletes—is helping to turn the tide, aided in a very important way by the growth of the internet as an alternative medium for coverage of competitive running. Internet-driven awareness of the U.S. resurgence among young Canadian athletes is, I believe, helping to inspire a resurgence of interest in serious distance running among post-collegians here.

This resurgence will remain stunted, however, if steps are not also taken to deal with the second and more easily addressed problem—that of too early specialization and year-round training and racing among age-class athletes, which continues to be a problem across North American. Two years ago, Athletics Canada released an exhaustive study detailing the optimal development path for young track and field athletes—its Long Term Athlete Development Guidelines. Yet, this very important and potentially useful document has not been backed by any effective enforcement measures at the national and provincial levels—measures that might include, for instance, limiting by age the number of competitions young athletes may enter in a season or year. Many road races have wisely taken it upon themselves to restrict entry to athletes under a certain age; yet, age-group track and field and cross-country in Canada remain entirely laissez-faire, with the exception of limits on the distances younger athletes may race in championship events. If we are to expect more young athletes to reach their 20s with an interest in pursuing the sport at the senior elite level—or, at the very least, with a desire to pursue competitive running for fun and fitness, the way thousands continue to enjoy recreational hockey or golf into their middle age—then we have to ensure that their involvement in the sport remains relatively casual and seasonal up to the age of at least 16. In running, it has been shown by literally hundreds of examples world-wide, it is possible to begin serious training as late as age 19 or 20 and still achieve world class results. Yet, many North American parents and coaches remain under the illusion that early, intense training and racing is necessary to reach the highest levels in the sport. In the interests of promoting greater participation rates and levels of enjoyment among kids, as well creating the conditions for the production of more potential Olympians, we need a development model better suited to the realities of running as a sport—one that encourages incremental, age appropriate participation, and that eschews the parent-centred, hyper-competitive culture of sports like minor hockey, gymnastics, or competitive swimming. It’s only by controlling the extent and intensity of kids involvement in distance running before the age of physical and psycho-social maturity that we can expect more of them to be interested in pursuing the sport in their prime years.

It would help, obviously, if those post-collegian runners who do decide to try for the next level could look forward to some support in the form of qualified coaching and modest funding opportunities (routine in many other countries); but, that’s an issue for another post. One of my main objectives in launching, however, is to make the first of these factors—decent coaching— as widely available to young runners as possible. In the absence of American-style “training enclaves” in Canada (with the very welcome exception of the Brooks Marathon Project and the Speed River group in Guelph), internet-based coaching may be the next best thing.

It remains, then, to welcome the new group of runners to the larger P-K running group! As I said at the top, these recent members present a telling picture of the state of the sport in Canada. They are almost all male and are either established and formerly self-coached masters, or much younger athletes looking for help in breaking through to the next level. The masters athletes, being older (of course), come from a bygone era in the sport—and era when serious recreational competition was much more common than today—and don’t need it explained to them that running is more rewarding if pursued seriously, and for life. (Incidentally, why, I’ve often wondered, do serious middle-aged runners these days frequently have to explain themselves to friends and family, whilst middle-aged golfers and hockey players, many of whom spend even MORE time and money pursuing their sporting passion than do runners, pass unnoticed, or are applauded?) As I alluded to above, master’s running is in very healthy shape in North America, with 40+ age runners now routinely dominating the tops spots in local road and multi-sport competitions.

As for the new younger runners in the group, they share Dylan’s generationally non-conformist desire to explore the limits of their athletic potential, and, in contacting me, have demonstrated the extent of their determination to do all they can to get there. As for the absence of new women, that may say something about women’s different use of the internet(!), but it also, unfortunately, speaks yet again of the crisis in serious participation among younger women runners in Canada. In far greater percentages than boys, girls are abandoning the sport at the end of their age-class and school careers; and yet, the data tells us, are no more likely to do so in pursuit of serious career ambitions, or to raise a family. Young people today, male and female, continue to start careers and families much later in life than in past decades, when the numbers of serious competitors, both male and female, were comparably greater. Girls have taken to running in truly remarkable numbers in the past 30 years, and post-collegiate athletes have as much or more spare time as they ever did to pursue senior elite careers; yet, they would appear to distinctly lack the inclination to do so. My strong suspicion is that they have been even more susceptible than boys to the pressures that have turned running increasingly into either a kids sport or a casual fitness activity for middle-aged adults. Girls tend to start training and competing very early and intensely, and likely see little of particular interest to them in road racing as appears in North America today. In any case, this is a topic for another post.