In Nature, there is a simple, appropriate progression to all things, a sensible and thoughtful order to all the processes of existence. In our physical training, we must respect Nature's example and follow a humble and conscientious path to get where we want to go. Just like a manual automobile, we must not skip gears in a rush toward a distant goal. Start small and build up, that's how it has always worked. When we are successful in our measured steps, growing stronger and faster, more competent and able, it is a nearly unequaled pleasure. Also, fortunately for us, it works like a snowball effect … the great excitement of clear improvement motivates us to work at improving further.
I remember running the mile in school, then my first continuous 3 mile run many years later. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area after college, I did my first 5 mile run in Tilden Regional Park, nestled in the East Bay hills. Then I did 6 miles, then 7, each time utterly stunned at what I'd done. It was thrilling to feel powerful and up to a challenge that had seemed totally impossible before. It was still very physical demanding for me but suddenly it all felt a little less intimidating…I soon realized I was becoming hooked on the joyful sensations of running.
The next winter I ran my longest run yet again: 10 miles with an ex-girlfriend and her mother who were training for a half marathon. The pace was mellow and it felt amazing and effortless (on the mostly downhill route.) I started hearing more about people running marathons, half-marathons and the like and my curiosity was piqued; I had never paid any attention before and now my eyes were beginning to open. I soon fell fully in love with running and within a year or two I set my goal on running 26.2 miles and the Big Sur Marathon, trained for it (alone and with great naivety), and completed it. Then there were more races around California -- the SF, Tahoe, Napa, CIM marathons and a few shorter trail races thrown in. Like most people who run road marathons, I soon wanted to do Boston and made qualifying for it my primary aim. After working hard to qualify -- building my speed, slowly increasing the mileage of tempo runs, running other fast races, and so on -- I failed to properly train and didn't take the necessary steps to run my desired time on the big day. I paid the price as it was the toughest and most painful race of my life (I'm still surprised I finished.)
Later, I read Born to Run and was hugely inspired and, naturally, experimented with minimal shoes and barefoot running. I avoided injury during those trials by managing (barely) to not overdo it, mixing it up and taking it easy just enough make it through the process unscathed. Barefoot and minimal running, like anything, requires a thoughtful, logical progression in order to do safely.
That's beside the point though; the purpose of these rambling words is to illustrate that really we should stick to whatever, after trial and error, works for us. Some folks can progress faster than others and can (seemingly) skip steps and get away with it. That's ok; it's their own deal, leave them to it. Find what works for you, what is sustainable and sensible for your mind and body.
It is wonderful to see successful progression in the awesome people I personally train and coach. It was a treat to guide my friend and budding mountaineer Vatik go on his very first short hikes and runs, on his first forays into wild, natural settings. We started small in Forest Park, hiking up to Pittock Mansion from Lower Macleay Park, so he could grow comfortable on the trails and in the elements. Soon he was running up Pittock and throwing extra weight in his pack when we went on adventures in the mountains. We tackled Larch Mountain one month and Mt. Defiance the next (in winter!) and last summer made a successful ascent of the massive Mt. Adams. Most recently, while beginning to train and prepare for his 2013 mountaineering goals, Vatik and I ascended Nesmith Point in the Columbia Gorge (pictures here).
Travis -- another burgeoning mountaineer aiming for a Mt. Hood summit this coming season -- and I ran up the steep, sustained climb of Firelane 1 in Forest Park from the very bottom early yesterday morning in the rain and dark. He reminded me at one point how only a few months ago he could hardly run a mile without stopping. It was a remarkable improvement and I was proud and amazed at his efforts but also ready to be wary lest there be any signs of him doing too much too soon.
I write training plans and then depend on the essential feedback of my clients to tell me how they feel, in order for me to figure out exactly what's too much and what's too little, what makes them good sore and what makes them bad sore. Every body is different and so fine-tuning and keen experimentation are essential to find the proper, natural progression that suits the individual best.
Sometimes "progression," as counter-intuitive as it may sound, entails doing less than usual, ramping down instead of ramping up -- tapering if you will. Runners and athletes, especially ultra-runners, are familiar with this (although some are better at doing so than others.) Sarah, a seasoned ultra runner and climber from Portland, just ran the Autumn Leaves 50 mile race this past weekend in Champoeg State Park near Wilsonville. She was disciplined in resting more than usual before the race (at my persistence) and despite a few weeks of lighter mileage training than she'd hoped for, she nailed her 50 mile PR by 17 minutes, coming in 2nd place female. Needless to say Sarah is awesome and I had the smug satisfaction of seeing my point proven right.
Everyone's path to physical improvement will be different but few can defy Nature's reality of order and progression. Experiment and find what works, get to know the details of your body so you know when you're over-doing it and when you're ok. If the road to optimal training is a jig saw puzzle then I say don't cheat, don't smash the pieces in the wrong spots in a mad rush. Take the time to visualize the big picture and make sure everything goes in the right places to create something whole and coherent. You'll be better off for it in the end.
Remember … thoughtful, logical progression. You got it, go hard, just don't skip gears.
Willie McBride is a native of Chicago, IL but has been living in and exploring the American West since 2000. He attended the Colorado College, majoring in English with a focus on Creative Writing, solidifying his love of writing and his need for mountains. An avid hiker, climber, and trail/ultramarathon runner he now resides in NW Portland, close by the trails of Forest Park. He started a personal/group training and coaching business called Animal Athletics (AnimalAthleticsPDX.com) with fellow ultra runner Yassine Diboun in spring of 2012 and the two provide top-notch services to aspiring outdoor athletes of all abilities.