(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from February 2007.)
I was about to call this a column of outtakes from the previous piece (“End of the Week”). But this one might mean more to you than the original.
The new one speaks of two runners who didn’t train many days, but ran a lot when they did, and had better results this way than when they trained more often. They are two old – in both senses of the word, aged and longtime – friends of mine.
First some personal scene-setting. Twenty years ago this spring I retired as a streaker – that is, a runner who never took a voluntary day off.
My last and longest streak had reached almost five years, and I realized that the everydayness was not longer in my best interest. It had flattened my running, leaving every run the same – slow and short.
I’ve always looked up to older runners, because they show me where I might go as my years add up. One penalty of aging is slower recovery time between big efforts.
This time I looked to George Sheehan for guidance. You know him as one of the finest writers this sport has ever known – or if you were lucky enough to hear him, the greatest speaker. I know him as one of the best friends I’ve ever had in running.
George ran to race. He never kept count but probably raced more than 1000 times, averaging one a weekend for 20-plus years.
He also raced very well, though he downplayed his results while writing and speaking so as not to distance himself from his audiences. He was the first runner older than 50 to break five minutes in the mile, running 4:47 at that age.
George’s routine at the time was to run almost daily, usually four to five miles on days when he didn’t race. Then in his mid-50s his racing times began slowing more dramatically than he could accept.
He dropped from six to five runs a week, and started improving again at races. Four days, more improvement; three, better yet. This was the least running he would accept.
The Sheehan plan for the rest of his racing life was two runs during the week of about 10 miles apiece, and a race or longer run (usually the race, seldom the long unless it was IN a race). This is to say, he ran twice as far, half as often as before. One result: setting his marathon PR of 3:01 a few days shy of his 61st birthday.
John Keston is another much-admired friend of mine. Pre-Ed Whitlock, John was the oldest runner to break three hours (at 69-plus) and the first over 75 under 3:30. He raced even better at shorter distances, setting dozens of world and American age-group records.
In his 70s John took a lesson from serious weight-lifters who said they needed 72 hours between hard sessions. He adopted a routine that remains with him today (at 82): a two-hour run every third day, with a walk of similar time on his recovery days.
I might never match John Keston and George Sheehan by resting more days than I run. And surely I’ll never run as fast in my upper years.
But the purpose of their program is well worth considering, by me and maybe by you too if you have lots of mileage on you. The goal: to run longer and better each time out, not less well on more days per week.
UPDATE FROM 2015
George Sheehan continues to teach new generations of runners through his writings. The latest posthumous book is The Essential Sheehan.
John Keston turned 90 in December 2014. He plans to extend his marathon career into the new decade. His memoir is titled Expressions of Aging.
[Hundreds of previous articles, dating back to 1998, can be found at joehenderson.com/archive/. Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Going Far. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]