Saturday, August 22, 2009

Run More, Think Less

While reading a good Wall Street Journal article on Kara Goucher, I saw something that I thought merited highlighting:

On the sport's elite levels, new theories about strategy and training took hold. The Runner's Handbook, first written in 1978 by Bob Glover and Jack Shepherd, told would-be marathoners to focus on highly structured training, while articles in Runner's World told them how many miles to run on how many days and how quickly to do it.

Trouble was, U.S. runners didn't improve—they started sucking wind. Ms. Benoit Samuelson's Olympic gold medal in 1984 was the last for an American over the next two decades.

Some experts blamed the decline on a lack of competitive fire. Others believed Americans were too afraid of failure or too busy partying through the roaring 1980s to make the necessary sacrifices in training.

Meanwhile, African runners began winning everything in sight. Since 1983, runners from places like Kenya and Ethiopia have won 28 marathon medals in 18 major international events, while Americans have won four. Some went as far as to suggest the Africans weren't just more motivated—they might be genetically superior. A recent study by Swedish and South African scientists concluded that the biochemical phenotypes of many Africans' muscles are better suited for distance running than those of western Europeans.

Jim Estes, associate director of long-distance running programs for USA Track and Field, says many American runners of that era (himself included) hated the rigors of training—but the Africans never seemed to care. "Their threshold for pain just seemed much higher," he says.

Tom Ratcliffe, an agent for several Kenyan runners, says Africans "enjoy the battle" in endurance running while most Westerners "race with anxiety." He says his runners usually have no idea how many miles they run per week, or how fast. They just want to win.

Felix Limo, a Kenyan runner who has won the 2006 London and 2005 Chicago marathons, says U.S. runners rely too much on structure and scientific programs—the sorts of things described in those books in the 1970s. They fix their minds on certain speeds, he says, and aren't flexible enough.

"I don't need a mileage like the runners here," he says. "I can push myself."

One of the first Western runners to figure out the Africans was Great Britain's Paula Radcliffe, who has won eight major marathon events since 2000. She's got some structure to her training, but she's known more for her relentless attacking and competitiveness.

Ms. Radcliffe's emergence coincided with the 2001 founding of the Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., whose mission is to advance the naturally aggressive "run first, ask questions later" style the Africans run with.

Deena Kastor, one of the club's most successful runners, finally broke through in 2006 to earn a No. 1 ranking. She won a bronze medal in the women's marathon in Athens in 2004. Another Mammoth runner, Ryan Hall, is the best American male in the event. He finished third in Boston in 2009—the only non-African runner in the top 10. "For so long, people here were focused on figuring out the exact science behind setting records," Ms. Kastor says. "But there is no exact science."

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