Thoughts From Three: Step-up 400's and the Art of Suffering

After the success of Jim Vermeulen's XC Journal in the many falls of Cross Country, we've asked again for him to provide some news and notes once a month. Think of these as the thoughts that cross the mind of your average coach. Up from Section 3, we present you with "Thoughts From Three."

Step-up 400's and the Art of Suffering


 " of the most important outcomes of an effective training program is the ability to do more with the same resources. Engaging in a training program in which certain bread-and-butter key workouts are frequently repeated is a great way to enhance this underappreciated outcome of training."

                                                 Matt Fitzgerald, Run


" all those who work come moments of beauty unseen by the rest of the world."

                                                      Norman MacLean


"We try. All of us. We try."

                                                  Richard Ford, Canada.




On a chilly, cloud-draped mid-April afternoon, not exactly what my mountaineering friend Mike would have declared "a golden day," I am grouping the runners for a Grunt Monday workout. Grunt Monday's, with their sometimes sleepy or slightly out of sync student-athletes, are one result of frequent Wednesday meets and are seldom intended as precision bouts of work. Strength-building, both physical and mental, is the goal. For outdoor track in our often snowy pre-season clime, that usually means road work--volume 200's up 'The Rise' or strenuous .4 mile intervals around Monte Vista Drive, which begins with a steep hill climb. To the runners, our moniker for these kinds of days is self-explanatory, and sooner or later most take some measure of pride in that.

This Monday, though, we're on the track for Step-Up 400's. I'm not sure where the Step-up 400 workout came from. The first note I have of it is a preserved result sheet from a 2003 practice, a date when many of our present distance squad members were in diapers. Pete, a previous track coach's son, was leading Greg, Collin and Justin through their intervals in about 1:17 that distant day, which might have been a tad faster than their 5k paces. But they knocked off five sets of three intervals each, so it was a good showing, and that workout sheet can always be pulled out should any of the current crew start whining about doing four. My former assistant, Coach Delsole, claims one of us as the originator of step-ups, but he and I both know it's a certainty that, in the history of modern training, someone else had previously put runners through tough intervals with similar scant recoveries.

So, you place a cone on the start/finish line, then at each 10 meters further back on the track plop down another. The runners begin at that furthest back cone, run 400m #1, then, with a few breaths, 'step up' to the second cone, run that interval and repeat the process for the third 400. That's a set, and you can imagine the feeling on launching out on that third interval. Pace becomes the most important variable and usually falls in the 1500m to 5k range. Three or four sets is our current standard, depending on the runners' abilities and the day.  Nobody, in my memory, has since matched Pete and his crew for volume, but others have been quicker. Late in any season, two sets at a fast pace can, if needed, take the place of a time trial while still providing fairly race-specific training. When filling out their Middle Distance Trainer Profile this March, some of my runners actually listed step-ups as their favorite challenging workout. We are making sure not to disappoint them.

I have, as is usual, nudged a wary or resistant few into faster groups to either promote fitness/efficiency improvements or merely to prove a point. There are times, even with the young and the supposedly 'delicate,' when you need to call a runner's bluff. You need to name skewed attitudes, passive inclinations or unfulfilled abilities for what they are. Groupings can very effectively--perhaps even nonchalantly--send to that select few the message: yes you can, you may not want to, but you can. Today, some messages are being delivered, so with a mix of emotions, they line themselves up at the far cone and set out.

The first set is usual a brew of enthusiasm and wariness as the runners gauge themselves and check stop-watches to settle on the proper pacings. I often use that first set to make my own assumptions about who is 'on' for the day, who is hedging his or her bets, or who, despite my best efforts, may be stuck in the wrong group. It's apparent that Matt either feasts on this workout or is upping his mental game, because he immediately powers to the front of his boys fast group. And when Mia earlier reacted well to a suggestion she and Natalie pace with each other, Natalie must have decided it was an opportunity to be earned because she gaps Mia in those set 1 intervals. Meanwhile, Joe and Tony are stuck like glue to each other, and Carly is never far off Emily, both with strong starts. During the 4-5 minute set recovery, all casually sip water and log times. They know they are just getting started.

          Step-up 400's, while training the body for speed-endurance and speed-strength, also necessarily train the mind. Quite simply, they demand mental toughness. A step-up 400 workout without the ability to gut things out guarantees an agonizing afternoon, maybe even a sense of failure.  But if the track goal is developing speed AND grit, in step-up 400's you've found your cup of tea. Some have wanted to classify our step-ups as a disguised 'will power workout,' and I suppose there is some truth to that. I am thinking of runners over the years who dropped out before completion, claiming residual/impending illness or a sore knee here, a dizzy, light-headedness there. More than a few were superior athletes. Regardless, for most runners, especially the neophytes, our step-ups are an acquired-though sometimes bitter--taste.

In set 2, the rubber starts meeting the road. But something's not right with Nick. Maybe, as is sometimes the case, it's simply a bad grade on an important test, maybe a diss in the cafeteria by a supposed friend, perhaps even the first traces of injury or illness. Whatever, he's off his game and struggling. Athletes often think coaches are unaware in practices, that dramatics may be necessary to project one's exhaustion or stiff, sore ankle into the coach's field of vision. But we see it; more often than not, we just choose not to respond. In this case, the stride mechanics look sound and without indication of injury. So Nick is left alone. "How do you feel?" I do ask some who look a little ragged as they peel off the track following the last interval of set 2. They know, however, it's just a rhetorical question. How they feel is not going to change what they do, so any answer with appropriate language will suffice. I also notice that Emily has gapped Carly on the last two intervals of the set.

These days, much more is understood about the notion of "perceived effort," which describes the continuous and complex mental calculations by the runner about what work remains and what energy is left to apply to that remaining work. We now have a better understanding of how this unconscious process in the mind of the runner ultimately governs performance. De Konig and his colleagues went so far as to develop the appropriately named "Hazard Index," which Steve Magness describes as "a simple metric that looks at how hard we are working and takes into account how much longer we have to continue to work hard..." The 'we' is the runner, and, simplistically speaking, the mental calculation by that runner goes something like: this is how I feel right now, half-way through, and since I know how I expected to feel at this point, I then know how I will feel, if I keep to this pace, by the end. If the calculation forecasts a lot of pain-the body's natural warning message--the mind starts trying to regulate the body, to slow it down, to prevent it from potentially harming itself. The common term for this mind-body process is "anticipatory regulation." Experience, of course, counts. If a runner has successfully pushed back against those calculations or has trained to a level where the warning signals come later or to a lesser degree, perceived effort and anticipatory regulation can be managed more effectively. The result is faster training and racing. Of course, the opposite of that mental management process can also prove true. They even have a term for runners dramatically deciding mid-way through that all is lost and who thus slow or-worse-quit outright. The name says it all: catastrophizing.

          Sometimes, coaches can look inside the busily calculating heads of their runners by reading faces. During that second set, there had been the serenity of Matt's visage which telegraphed he felt fine at the moment and in control of his work. Libby had starred ahead, vacantly intent, wasting no energy on facial expressions. One way or another, she was saying, she'd plug this day out.  And I caught the slight hint of concern by Carly in that second interval as Emily gapped her down the finish straight.  I wondered.

The third set comes at them in both a physical and a metaphorical way. The alpinist and writer David Roberts wrote a classic mountaineering book aptly titled Moments of Doubt--and if the life-threatening, no-return emergency decisions he described on steep, isolated Alaskan peaks dwarfed any such calculations by my distance runners, the two athletic circumstances still share the point. Even on the safe confines of a four hundred meter oval, those moments will come when you suddenly worry if can do what you set out to. And then you have to decide.

The air has cooled, the breeze notched up a bit. Our drab cloud curtain has pulled itself so tight across the sky you can almost imagine November. Disparities in pace have stretched out the comings and goings of the groups, but most are either engaged with, or resting in anticipation of, the crux set #3, that infamous third quarter of any middle distance race or training effort where intention confronts physiology. Carly has probably entertained her own moment of doubt, so as she launches on 400m #7, I sense the stakes are high.

Once in that set, Joe and Tony are still impersonating metronomes. Their pace matches previous sets, but the grimaces proves the contention that, in the late going, a perceived effort level can be a faulty speed indicator. In reality, you must work harder just to maintain a similar pace. Matt, meanwhile, is confronting the accumulations of fatigue. As an outlier deprived of teammate support, he's slowed a tad, and I wonder if this break-away effort will be caught in the final set by the peloton of runners not far behind. Also, amid all the comings and goings of both distance and sprint groups, Carly has quietly made her decision. She and Emily, both bent on the infield and sucking air, have finished set three with identical times.

If you pay attention, it's all great drama. And driving the drama is what the exercise physiologist Bertrand Baron refers to as "affective load," that measure of discomfort an athlete senses during rigorous training and racing. It's a load some bear better than others. Baron's contention-as is the contention of most coaches who stress the mind-body interplay of effort-is that we'd better do more than just train our runners physiologically. For maximum performance, we also need to train them to suffer-even if only temporarily.

This concept of suffering typically gets a bad rap-or is considered too universally. Most of us automatically assume the condition of suffering is a negative, something to be avoided or something which connotes a failure to manage circumstances properly. But it isn't, especially with endurance athletes. Three dictionary definitions of 'suffer' as a transitive verb are these: 1) to submit to or be forced to endure; 2) to feel keenly : labor under; 3) to put up with, especially as inevitable or unavoidable. All three relate, in one fashion or another, to the runner's required acts of training and racing. If you're going to be a successful runner, the ability to suffer needs to be in your wheelhouse. No racer will amount to much without that ability-in fact, the desire--to suffer. Pain, of course, is always be part of that condition, but it's what you do with your pain that dictates how successfully you can suffer-and thus perform athletically. And when you think about what many modern parents want most for their kids to be spared, this kind of training presents challenges.

These kinds of tough workouts are valuable in invaluable ways. A myriad of tools and schemes exist to codify, group, mark or otherwise characterize athletes. From my years of working with runners--and the idiosyncrasies of personality aside--I've found that the simplest way to take measure of them is twofold. First, with all the lower stress, 'easier' work of training and preparing, you answer the question of whether the athlete demonstrates a commitment to that sometimes tedious process. Does the athlete put in the time and the efforts required, whether alone or with teammates, or does he/she instead look for shortcuts or rationalize necessary work that's been left on the couch? And secondly, when it's time to put the pedal to the metal with grueling workouts or races, does he or she demonstrate the guts--the ability--to successfully suffer? These are simple questions with often complex answers. And sometimes, the answers are long in coming.

The rawness of the day has seeped in, and I cinch up my collar. The only silver lining for the athletes now is the reality that chilly weather constitutes the least of their concerns. Three more rapid-fire 400's lay ahead. It's closer time. Put up or shut up. The runners have already all been fed a diet of workouts that stress finishing fast. They've heard the speeches ad nauseum and understand the competitive advantages of being able to "go to the well." It's time to practice what's been preached-again.

If a runner is healthy, in good form, and if the day's right for the workout, by the end of it you'll likely have a snapshot of that runner's soul. Observations are coupled with 'the data' and you can better understand the one who starts out too strongly with great energy and blind hope, then flames. Or another who goes bookend, being too tentative in the middle for not trusting her training-or herself. Then there's others who impersonate that metronome, measuring the effort out precisely with enviable body sense and a remarkably low range of intervals. And sometimes you can simply step back and appreciate those few lucky folks, the ones who quietly demonstrate the mastery that comes with time and commitment by going negative--fast, faster, faster still. You can usually identify those people by their private smiles as they log splits. With a hard step-up 400 workout, however, going negative is as rare as July snow.

If you could have peered down from above at that last set unfolding, you would notice a range of reactions. Some are, indeed, hobbling home mentally and physically, so there's more work to be done with those folks.  And the teammate peloton has, indeed, been after Matt. Watching his arms in the third set, I'd noticed their eased, rhythmic cycle had lost a little balance, constricting slightly to over-extension in front of the body. Reaching for the rope, some call it, as though hoping to pull oneself along. Matt is in that state, and his face has lost its sense of calm control. Libby, meanwhile, had doled out a good measure of physical and mental energy in the third set--her fastest of the day--and she is now paying a price to maintain her pace. The head is rolling a little and increased body tilt suggests pure hope mixed with determination. Across the track, Emily and Carly are rhythmically matching strides down the backstretch in that beatific way a coach wants to remember.

Group by group, under grey gloomy skies, they pull onto the infield or simply come to a dead stop in their lane across the finish, spent. Matt's bent over the grass, breathing heavily but obviously satisfied. Determination won his day. The peloton never caught him. They stand nearby in a small circle, sharing weak back slaps and exhaustion. And down the stretch, two figures reach for what's left. Carly's slightly ahead this time. Not far off those closing acts, Libby will eventually lean her way home, bend for long breaths, straighten and then smile wanly and comply as coach suggests with a twinkle in his eye that she wipe that drool off her chin.

It's all good. The view from above of stilled runners is almost serene. They'll live to suffer another day--a little wiser, a little faster and--one hopes--a little more determined. That's up to them of course. But what better preparation for things-beyond-running than that ability, when the chips are down, to summon confidence and courage and conviction to your cause?

          Dan Bailey, the famous fly fisherman, once said of Norman Maclean's celebrated story, A River Runs Through It, "There are hundreds of books and articles on how to fly fish, but only Maclean tells you how it feels." We know a lot of why the athletes should be put to the test regularly in our high-intensity workouts such as Step-Up 400's. It's only the athletes, however, who really know how that feels. It's only athletes who make the choices about how they will suffer-by moving up or moving over, by clicking in or by checking out. Those choices matter. For most scholastic runners, those moment-of-doubt decisions finally describe them better than any known timing device. And so, if the ultimate goal for a runner is to create total competence, it's worth paying close attention to that too.