Friday, May 18, 2012

Back on Track*

*Literally. Metaphorically to be determined.

Yesterday I hit the track for the first time since the marathon. I’m set on trying shorter races before the next marathon training cycle starts (which always sneaks up on me sooner than expected!) so I’m at the track trying to get some speed back in my legs. Serendipitously, this month’s issue of Running Times had an article about stepping down from marathons to 5ks. It outlines some track workouts for the marathoner turned 5ker. Perfect.

The first is a set of 200m repeats: 5x (5x200m) at 5k pace. Translation: five 200-meter repeats (1/2 lap of the track = ~1/8 mile) with a 30 second jog between each repeat. Then a three-minute jog before doing another 5x200m, repeating this cycle until a total of 5 sets are complete = 5 x 5 x 200m = 5k.

The idea behind the workout is to get your legs turning over quickly again. It seems a little silly to be doing 200m repeats at this pace (5k pace for 200m is not fast), but I know I wouldn’t be able to run a straight 5k at that pace, so there is work to be done and this is just the beginning. The workouts progress each week to 400m repeats, then 800m, and so on, all done at 5k pace, until you can string together some 1k repeats at goal pace.

I was able to beat my goal time in all my 200s. I thought it felt a little too easy, and so on the last set I tried to pick up the pace, but ending up running the same pace as the rest. Perhaps it was harder than I thought. I think my real problem is not so much the turnover but being able to sustain the kind of pain of a 5k (different than marathon pain) for a long time (again, “long” has a different meaning here) but that’s what the progression is for. Also, since I beat my goal time, I can confidently move onto the next workout.

One catch to this workout: my $10 Target watch doesn’t record that many splits, and I don’t bother with a Garmin at the track. So I had to memorize all those splits until I could get home and record them in my log. Psychologists used to believe the brain was capable of holding only 7 items (words, numbers, or sounds) in its memory at once. (I’ve heard this is why phone numbers are 7 digits.) In these tests, people have to remember both the item and the order it came in the list. People can employ strategies where they group meaningful items together (“chunking”) and it’s now thought that the limit of 7 isn’t a hard and fast rule but depends on what type of item you’re trying to remember (number vs. word), how you can group them, etc. It’s been proposed that 4 chunks may be closer to capacity. (Look at that, I stuck some science in here. Happy Friday.)

Ok, but I have 25 things to memorize. They are already conveniently arranged in meaningful “chucks” (the five sets) so now it’s a matter of memorizing the actual times. People that are memory champions are able to memorize a deck of cards in less than 1 minute by assigning each item a vivid image. They let the images tell a story, which they then recall back. I didn’t have to get that crazy, but I did try to use images to remember the numbers. Since I had sets of 5 things, I counted on my fingers and toes. (Yep, just like when I was three.) I imagined my hand flat on a table. If I hit 42s, I imagined my finger coming up off the table; 41s the finger was flat on the table, 40s the finger was bent over. (Fortunately, I was pretty consistent and didn’t have to think of other finger configurations.) The pinky on my left hand was the first repeat, the ring finger the second, etc. After one set, I'd picture the whole hand and all the fingers' positions and then I moved onto the next hand, then each foot. After 4 sets, I had to lap back to my first hand again, but that wasn’t difficult. I suppose you could keep going like this until either your head explodes or your legs give out, your times slip, and your imaginary hand configurations get too grotesque to visualize. I didn't have to go that far, and by the time I got home, I was able to recall all 25 times in order.

Overall it was a good workout and it didn’t leave me completely tanked, which means I’m ready to move on to the next one. Maybe I am metaphorically "back on track" as well. Either way, I’ll only have to remember 15 items (400m and 200m times) next week.

Dream big,


  1. Whew! The arithmetic would be tough enough for me... never mind the repeats!

    Should someone consider buying you a new watch for your birthday....or is all that mnemonicizing good for the brain?

    Keep at it!

  2. I learn so much from Science Friday, and new questions come up:

    Is running more popular in areas of the U.S. where the weather is more temperate? Has anyone looked at how environmental factors influence people to run or not? (The weather is perfect for outdoor exercise in the Northeast right now, but much of the year the weather provides excuses.)

    Thanks for making me think!