Running, Building a Base and R.O.T.C.

I’ve never actually looked up what R.O.T.C. meant, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps apparently, but it was always clear to me what it was about. It was a combination of education and military training. I’ve never really liked the idea, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I had some insight into why.

I’m in the process of getting back into my preferred exercise, running. After years of running too hard, too long or too fast when getting back into it, I’ve finally found an approach that works every time.

You start doing 10 miles a week. If you want to run 2 miles for 4 days and 1 mile for 2 days, that’s fine. If you want to do 6 miles 1 day and 4 miles another and take the rest of the week off, that’s fine too. It really depends on what your body can handle. Generally, I start with 3 or 4 miles a day and stop when I hit the weekly total.

And the next week, you do 2 more miles, which means 11 weeks of 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30 miles a week. Once you reach 30 miles a week, then you can increment at 10% of your weekly mileage until you get to your goal weekly distance. If that goal distance is more than 60 miles a week, you need to think about doubling, or doing 2 runs a day and only running longer than 10 miles on your long run day, 1 day a week.

I’m currently on a week of 22 miles, so a little over halfway through this initial base building period. I’m thinking of a goal weekly distance of around 50 miles a week, something like this schedule:

  • Monday: 4 miles / hills, 8 * 0.5m speed
  • Tuesday: 9 miles, easy
  • Wednesday: Off
  • Thursday: 6 miles easy (morning), 9 miles easy (evening)
  • Friday: 6 miles, easy
  • Saturday, 16 miles
  • Sunday, Off

The nice thing about a weekly schedule is that you can modify it to conditions. If the weather forecast says rain on Thursday, then it is easy enough to shift your double to Wednesday. If you plan to go out Friday, then make Tuesday a double.

All of the above is a bit of prep for my anecdote. I was out running 6 miles yesterday when a group of R.O.T.C. cadets were preparing for a 1 mile run. They took off from my turn around point, a minute before I got there. Then, I passed about 1/3 of them before they got to their turn around point. Why? Because they went out and ran as fast as they could. They were poorly conditioned, and the non-commissioned officer was telling all the people that were turning around in front of me that they needed to run faster. While running past him, I said, “Their problem is they are walking.” And they are walking because they haven’t built a conditioning base. They are trying to run as fast as they can and a mile, much of it with a 4% or more grade, is not something you try to run without building up your conditioning first.

It’s a simple idea. You wouldn’t expect these cadets to go into combat without making sure they are competent with their weapons, would you? Shoot faster? No, you have to develop a training program that supports the capabilities you want to have to reach specific goals. Run faster would only make sense with this group if you were doing quarter mile sprints.

Of course, I suspect this is tied into the physical fitness test the military administers. I think tests are great, and I am all for them. But, you do not do physical conditioning to a test. A test is to help you understand what you need to work on. And the one thing that is obvious to me, as an observer of this group, is they need someone competent to run their physical fitness program.

Bad Exercise Advice, Exhibit B

“Despite the apparent complexity of modern exercise programs, you really have only two options if you want to get fitter: you can train harder than you’re currently training, or you can train more. Those two variables, intensity and volume, are the basic levers that all training plans fiddle with in various ways. But let’s be honest: two variables is still too many. We all secretly want to know which one is really the master switch that controls our fitness.”

-Alex Hutchinson, “Is It More Important to Run Faster or Run Longer?Outside. August 14, 2019.

As covered in the discussion on adaptation response, there is no “master switch that controls our fitness.” If you want to be good at doing push-ups, do push-ups. If you want to swim the English Channel, then practice swimming miles at a time in cold water currents. If you want to be able to hold your breath for an extended time, then practice holding your breath. If you want to have six-pack abs, then you need to reduce your eating and increase your activity to the point that you can get your body fat below 10%. Everybody has six pack abs, it’s just that, for most of us, they are hidden behind a thick layer of fat.

Of course, goals tend to be more complex. If you want to run your first marathon, then you need to run more. You should work up to running 50 miles a week and be able to run for 20 miles straight a month before your race.

If you want to run faster than your last marathon, then you can increase your mileage up to 120 miles a week of elite runners and you can work in as much speed work as your body can handle at that volume, which will not be much unless you have been running that kind of volume for years and your body has adapted to it.

It is possible to run shorter distances fast and move up to the marathon. So, after years of adapting to a high volume of speed and middle distance running, you can start training for longer distances and increase mileage.

However, if your new to running, your goal is to run a marathon and you don’t have a decade time horizon to do it, then it’s probably easier to start with running more rather than a running program focused on running faster. Conversely, if your goal is to run a sub-20 minute 5k race, then running more than 50 miles a week will likely make you slower, not faster. Better to do intervals of 5k, a mile, a half-mile and a quarter mile with lower total mileage.

Your training has to reflect the activity you are training for. Sprinting is not the same as long distance running. Cycling isn’t the same leg exercise as doing squats and deadlifts. Our body (and mind) adapts to the training (or lack thereof) we give it.