Ab interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on September 20th explained how Olympian Bernard Lagat relies on extended downtime to refresh his batteries, heal soreness, and rediscover his motivation to compete. Now that’s Smart Training! The complete article is below:
After Bernard Lagat competes Saturday in the Fifth Avenue Mile, he plans to do something that would feel completely foreign to many elite runners: He will toss his sneakers in a closet and pig out for the next five weeks. No running. No sit-ups. No heavy lifting, except for a fork.
For a handful of top-notch athletes, including Lagat and fellow U.S. Olympians Matthew Centrowitz and Leo Manzano, Saturday’s race will mark the end of a taxing year of competition. There were long training runs last fall, indoor races last winter and meets throughout Europe this summer. Lagat is ready for a long break, so he is going to take one—just like he has every fall since 1999.
“Rest,” he said, “is a good thing.”
At age 37, Lagat continues to defy the corrosive effects of time. A four-time Olympian, he placed fourth in the 5,000 meters at the London Games in August. He owns seven American records, ranging from the 1,500 to the 5,000. He is the defending champion of the Fifth Avenue Mile—he won last year’s race in 3 minutes, 50.5 seconds—and doesn’t appear to be slowing down at all. “Talk about a superhero,” said Manzano, the Olympic 1,500-meter silver medalist.
Yet for all of the hard work he puts into training, Lagat cites inactivity as one of the reasons for his success. He takes the time to be lazy.
Running is a high-impact sport, hard on joints and muscles. Lagat, who lives and trains in Tucson, Ariz., said he has been able to prevent injury and burnout by shutting himself down every fall. His body recovers and recharges. Next month, he will do two things: coach his son’s soccer team and gain eight pounds. It is pure bliss, he said.
Then, on Nov. 1, his couch-potato sabbatical will draw to a close, as it does every fall, and another 11-month training cycle will begin anew. Lagat marks the date. “It doesn’t matter if it’s snowing or raining or the sun is out—that’s when everything starts again,” he said.
Peter Thompson, a longtime coach and former official with IAAF, track and field’s governing body, said there are obvious physiological benefits to Lagat’s approach. For example, those few extra pounds will provide fuel for Lagat to burn once he resumes training. (Lagat’s racing weight is 130 pounds.) But five-week vacations aren’t particularly common, Thompson said, at least not among American athletes. “In the U.S., runners are very obsessive about not letting go of the training,” he said.
Lagat, who was born in Kenya and became a U.S. citizen in 2004, said he has found that many of his friends have psychological hang-ups about taking long breaks. “It’s the fear of how they’re going to feel on that first day back,” he said.
Centrowitz, 22, acknowledged that fear—the fear of feeling awful. “You spend so much time getting into really good shape,” he said, “so why let yourself get totally out of shape?”
Centrowitz, who placed fourth in the 1,500 meters at the London Games, said his coach, Alberto Salazar, has been advising him to rest for two weeks following Saturday’s race. Centrowitz wants to negotiate. Maybe he can cut it down to five days. “I’ve never liked the idea of a big break,” he said.
Lagat said every athlete is different, but his schedule—designed with his coach, James Li—has been effective. He is willing to share tips with anyone who asks.
Agence France-Presse/Getty ImagesAt age 37, Lagat continues to defy the corrosive effects of time. Above, Lagat competes at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Athletics Championships in March.
“My training is an open book,” Lagat said. “It’s always the same.”
Lagat said it takes some time to work himself back into shape, but that is part of the process. A 30-minute jog on his first day back can leave him doubled over, short of breath. By week three, he can go for a 10-mile jog in 55 minutes. “I never push myself feeling like I should be in shape right away,” he said. “I know I have time.”
At the end of March, following indoor track season, he rests for another week or two. Then, in April, he heads to Flagstaff, Ariz., for six weeks of high-altitude training. This is where he builds his workload to roughly 70 miles per week—if that. Many elite runners cover more than 100 miles per week. Not Lagat. This past year, he said, he maxed out at about 65 miles. For him, training is about intensity. Volume is overrated.
“Other runners will look at me and they’re like, ‘You’re not training! How can you get really fit doing 60 miles a week?'” Lagat said. “My runs are very hard. Everything I do is hard. I always tell people, ‘Here are my workouts. This is exactly what I do. If you try it, good luck.'”
A typical Lagat week is an exercise in regimented suffering. He trains once a day, usually at 3 p.m. Monday might be eight “easy” miles in 46 minutes.
Then the real work begins. Tuesday: a series of 500-meter repeats, with the first 300 meters in 42 seconds and the final 200 meters in 26 seconds. Wednesday: a hill workout. (Use your imagination.) Thursday: another “easy” eight miles. Friday: a five-mile tempo run, featuring 4:59-mile pace for the final three miles. Saturday: 13 miles in 72 minutes. Sunday, he rests. His rationale: “The body is tired. You’re not a machine.”
Manzano, 28, said he would follow the Lagat plan this fall after taking two weeks off in past years. “I really feel like you need a month, or even five weeks, not only to rest your body but to recover mentally,” he said. Manzano has juggled a manic schedule since his silver-medal performance at the Olympics, from racing in Switzerland to meeting President Barack Obama at the White House. “It feels like I’ve been going nonstop since November,” he said.
As for Lagat, he recalled when he first heard questions about his longevity: How much longer would he be able to compete at such a high level? “It was when I was about to turn 30,” he said. Now he is closing in on 40.
Retirement? Lagat doesn’t know what that means. What he does know is he has preserved his career by doing something that runs counter to the popular ethos of the sport: opting not to run at all.