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The Lazy Marathoner: You've got to run slow to get fast

July 2, 2009 | 10:52 pm


The humiliation of the eight-hour L.A. Marathon is now safely in the rear-view mirror. And it's time to get back to work.

I've basically been a total do-nothing since L.A., partly because of a foot injury -- my doctor told me to stop running for a few weeks to let it heal -- and partly because, well, we all know I am lazy. So the only "exercise" I did in the days and weeks after the marathon was tooling around the Internet looking for a new training program to follow when I decided to get up off the couch.

And then I found this article by triathlon god Mark Allen, who gives all kinds of kudos to Dr. Phil Maffetone and his unconventional training methods. (Complete and utter aside: In addition to my dream of one day qualifying for Boston, I have delusions of one day making my way down the Queen K Highway and competing in an Ironman.)

But back to Dr. Phil, author of "In Fitness and In Health."  Dr. Phil's training philosophy is practically heretical to the no-pain, no-gain, Runners World-reading masses. He believes many of us mistakenly push ourselves too hard with workouts designed to push us to our anaerobic limits and beyond. Those workouts certainly have their place within a training program, said Dr. Phil. But we need to first lay a solid foundation of aerobic conditioning, and that means easing up just a bit and using heart-rate-monitored workouts. Best of all, these conditioning workouts have the added benefit of training our bodies to burn fat for energy, unlike the harder workouts that pull more heavily from our carb reserves. (Check out his website here for more details, as well as a look at Dr. Phil's newfound love in recent years: making music.)

As you might imagine, this was all music to my lazy ears.

But could this really work for me? After all, my problem is that I'm pretty slow to begin with. And, besides, my goal is to run faster and improve my marathon-finishing time. Dr. Phil generously agreed to speak with me by phone, and we started by discussing my training program to date. I wear a heart-rate monitor during workouts, so I was able to tell him that I am generally in the range of 155 to 165 beats per minute, and that's whether I'm doing a long run on the weekend or a short run during the week.

"There's your problem," he said.

Dr. Phil employs a simple heart-rate formula to determine a recommended training zone that goes something like this: Subtract your age from 180 for your baseline training heart rate. If you're a highly trained athlete and injury free, you can add five extra beats. If you're a regular exerciser, don't add anything. And if you are a couch potato, subtract five beats. That final figure is your optimum heart-rate training zone.

In my case, that left me at 132 beats per minute.

"There's no way I can 'run' at 132 beats per minute," I told him. (My heart rate is in the high 120s during my warmup.) 

"Then don't run," he said. "Walk instead."

Walk??? That's worse than the slow shuffle I already do when I "run." How in the world would this help my marathon time?

You've got to go slow to go fast, Dr. Phil explained. And that's the guts of his training philosophy. Over time, he explained, my conditioning would improve so that it would take me less time to cover the same distance. In other words, I would get faster even while staying at the same 132 beats per minute. My workouts would be less stressful. Injury would be less likely.

But this was the promise that convinced me to give it a try: My body would become a fat-burning machine.

And I want that more than I want to qualify for Boston. Or finish an Ironman.

I was game. So I went to the track at Cal State Long Beach to do a timed run that would serve as the baseline for my training. I was to warm up, and then run five miles, keeping my heart rate below 132 beats. As I predicted, it was impossible to run at that heart rate. So I'd run a few steps until my heart rate hit around 130, and then walk until it dropped back into the mid-120s, and so on.

It was, in a word, aggravating. And a bit embarrassing. (The first mile took me about 18 minutes and my time went downhill from there.)

But another word to describe the workout would be "easy." Despite doing almost zero exercise in the weeks leading up to this test, I finished five miles with no problem and could have kept going.

And I wasn't sore the next day.

Well, I'm ready to see where this new method takes me. In another month or so, I'll do another test and we'll compare notes. There are two other components to the so-called Maffetone method: Scrutinizing my diet, and scrutinizing the level of stress in my life. I'm looking forward to one, not so much to the other. I'll let you figure out which is which.

So far, the slower pace seems to be agreeing with my left foot -- no pain when I run. (And by "run" I still mean that walk-run-shuffle-run-walk pace. I've also been using the treadmill at the gym -- I can set the pace and incline so I keep my heart rate at a steady pace without all the slowing down and speeding up.)

Best of all, when I am out on a run, I pay attention only to my heart-rate monitor, whereas previously my internal dialogue would be one long fret session about how slowly I was running. Now I don't have to feel any guilt or shame about running slowly.

I'm just following doctor's orders!

-- Rene Lynch

Photo caption: I am forever on the hunt for the perfect heart-rate monitor -- if you have any suggestions, please let me know. I own these three: A Timex, an ancient Polar model and a Garmin Forerunner 305. Photo credit: Moi.