This article, by Rich Stiller, originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of our magazine.
Back in 1970’s and 80’s my training was always pretty straightforward. The more miles I ran the faster I raced. At 40 miles per week I could barely break 17 minutes for 5k. On a steady diet of 60-65 miles per week I came close to breaking the 16 minute barrier. When numerous attempts over two years failed to get me under that mark, I finally set aside four months and trained at 75 miles per week.
Somewhere near the end of those 16 weeks I ran 15:46 on a tough course. If someone asked me what the formula was for faster times my answer was simple: train more. But don’t cross train more. Run more. I thought this was the golden rule.
But in my quest to become locally ranked, I kept bumping into runners who broke the golden rule, debunked my formula. I had discovered weird runners, a silent minority of iconoclasts who still managed to flourish while bucking the traditional system.
Exhibit A: Ted. He was an odd duck who festooned himself in thick dark framed glasses, a white cotton undershirt, and matching shorts. He looked like he belonged in the recesses of a budding Silicon Valley computer lab, not the starting line of a 10k. Yet, he was a low 32 minute 10k runner, and I couldn’t best him. He wasn’t very chatty, so it was only through a conversation with a friend of his that I found out how he trained: Ted didn’t count miles. He counted 440’s.
“You mean he goes out and 40 x 440 in a workout?” I asked. “That’s incredible!”
“No,” he went on. “He just tries to get 40 total in over six to seven days each week depending on whether he’s racing or not. So seven to eight one day, maybe nine to ten on another until he hits 40 of them. By the way, he has no idea how many miles he runs in a week. Just how many 440’s.”
Ted was strange but not the strangest runner I knew. That accolade would have to go to Exhibit B, Joe. Back in the day breaking 3 hours for the marathon was a BFD. I did it in 1974 on 40 mpw. Most of my friends were training north of 50 to accomplish the same feat. One of those trying to clear this hurdle was a sawed-off-runt-of-a-guy named Joe. Despite his build, he ran low 5:00’s for the mile and was under 6:00 pace for five and six mile races.
We got to talking about his training one day. Due to a hectic job, he only ran 2 miles a day during the work week. On the weekend he ran 12-15 miles on Saturday and a race on Sunday. He probably managed an unconventional 30 mpw.
“Whoa Joe,” I said. “You aren’t training enough. Your weekly mileage is too low! Those two milers are a waste of time.”
He shrugged, “It’s all I have time to run.” He then he looked at me thoughtfully and said, “But you’re right. I need to change something.”
Several months later he crushed his marathon PR by 17 minutes with a 2:58! I collared him after a race and asked him how he had adjusted his training.
“I dropped those two milers,” he said. “I took your advice. You were right. They weren’t helping me.”
“What did you replace them with?”
For Joe, less was more. He ran long on Saturday and raced on Sunday. He had cut back to two days a week!
Joe raged on, running a number of PR’s in the next several months. He kept to the same weekend-only training schedule. Like Ted, Joe figured out what worked for him.
He learned that to improve he had to either run his weekend jaunts faster or add in more miles. Joe, eager to improve, did both. He took his Saturday long run up to 20 miles. This is what he had to do to get those PR’s.
In the early 1990’s, in my mid 40’s, I began training every other day. I ran 8-12 miles one day and took the next day off. Running every day for so many years had put me in a real slump and I needed to mix it up. Inside of six months I was back to winning my age group in local races. I was competitive with runners my age who ran 60 to 70 miles a week. Like Ted and Joe, I had become weird. I am Exhibit C.
Turns out, weird worked. These days I still run 3-4 days a week, which weirdly enough is more than many of my competitive contemporaries. Ω
Exhibit C, Rich Stiller, has been weirdly on the run since 1968.
To read more from our Sept/Oct 2015 issue, click here.
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Feature image of Kevin Tilton by Dave Dunham.