Natalie poses two great questions: Perhaps you may not know the answer… probably no one does. In high school I ran a 25 minute 5k (I know really slow), but I think I could have been faster because I wasn’t doing any strength training and had pretty poor nutrition that really took a toll on my running. My goal is to reach a 21 minute 5k, but I’m not even sure if that is in the cards for me. Do you think it’s possible, with the right training for me to get that fit, or fast? If not, how do I keep from getting discouraged about being a slow runner. I love running, but I’m very competitive, and feel defeated. Perhaps, I just need to let go of the dream of being a fast long distance runner. What do you think?
And also, do you know how long (approximately) it takes for someone to get back into shape? I know it probably depends on the person, but I’ve been weight lifting (which I had never done before) and running and I’m discouraged by how far I have come… I know I have made improvements, but I thought I would have met my 5k time by now. Does this kind of thing take years?
Your first question is an age-old one. I am asked regularly “how fast can I get” or “is it possible for me to run xx:xx time.” Therein lies the beauty of running. We are not dependent on an opponent who is stronger, quicker or bigger than us who will hamper us from performing. We are free to be the best we can be. There have been efforts to estimate physical limitations for bipeds. I have seen projected “fastests” for various distances. But it is pseudo-science in a way. Think about it, if the 5K world record is 12:37:35 (Bekele) who is to say someone won’t run 12:36? If someone runs 12:36 who says someone else can’t run 12:35? 12:34? I hope you get my point. Though I’m quite sure there are in fact physical limitations to how fast ANY individual can run (without defying physics); NOBODY knows what that limit is!
So, until we endeavor to run faster we’ll never know what we are capable of. And until the end of our running careers we’ll never know our “fastest.” Even then, we can look back and most likely say “if only I had done this or that a little differently, or if I didn’t get that injury, I could have run even faster.”
I have a 56 year old man I am coaching right now, who came to me to run 5Ks “fast”. He has a long history of soccer playing and is a good athlete, very strong and fit. Before he signed on he wanted me to “guarantee” my coaching would make him a 19:00 5K runner by the end of this Fall (5-6 months). Of course, I cannot guarantee any such thing (and steer far away from anyone who says they can!). I can only guarantee that I provide the scientifically based training and that I have skills to tailor that science to individuals with excellent dialog and feedback. He has progressively improved from 27:00 or so to a 23:00 5K in 4 months. He now realizes how much work is needed and has found a new respect for running. He has modified his goals and is looking to race “fast” in the Spring. He is very happy with his progress, enjoys progressing and still has me as his coach.
I share this little story to show you that you are not alone – regardless of age – and progress no matter how small is in fact progress. “Fast” is a relative term. The people running in back of you currently see you as “fast” and only wish they could run as fast as you. So it’s important to define “fast” for yourself.
Concrete goals help you define “fast.” They are created to keep us on track. They must be realistic. Chopping minutes off a 5K time might be reasonable over time for a 30:00 5K runner but not for a 15:00 5K runner. They also have to take into consideration an athlete’s desire to do what it takes to get there. The more lofty your goals the more critical every component becomes – diet, sleep, cross-training, strengthening, race strategies & pacing, etc.
But it is in the journey we live life. (Ok… I know, it’s philosophical.) Having goals can’t be all-or-nothing. Don’t set goals so far in the future they are barely a glimmer in the distance. That does not feed motivation. So, to keep from being discouraged and to feel progress: set multiple goals (A, B, C, D goals – perfect day and moons in alignment, good day, acceptable effort day, satisfactory making progress day); set long term, intermediate and short term goals. All goals must mesh – support each other and make logical sense.
Other ways to challenge yourself is to compete against yourself and your past times. Chart your progress in a log or on a calendar. Run different races on different courses. Set process goals such as consecutive weeks of “x” miles or workouts; consecutive weeks with a speed workout; etc. If you follow through on the process (assuming your training program is solid), then you will progress. It reduces some frustration because it keeps you focused on today – today’s workout – which is all you control… not tomorrow’s performance.
You mention weight training and detraining effect, so I will add a comment on that. It does seem to help novice runners in building general body strength. It may even prevent some injuries. So, keep doing it. You are young and should progress for years to come. In the short term a week off usually takes two weeks to get back where you were. In the long term, strong established athletes who maintain their general conditioning will return to former levels more rapidly than those who aren’t. The more you have “let yourself go” the longer the road back. If you were pretty sedentary after high school then I would consider that you are starting from scratch – be patient. It’s something I personally fight anytime I take time off. I ‘remember when’ I would bounce back so fast. I can’t compare being 52 with when I was 22. Likewise, even though you are relatively young (20s) you aren’t a high school athlete any more. Forget what you once did or used to do. Work on being the best TODAY you that you can be.
As with so many inquiries, without a complete history and assessment it’s difficult for me to get too specific. I also may not know other issues (health or otherwise) that impact how you will progress. But, always remember to get faster you ultimately have to do fast running. (The cramps you previously mentioned you get should subside over time.)
Let me share one more running life lesson. No sooner to do you hit a target goal – achieve what today you define as “fast” and you will think to yourself… “you know, I think I can do a bit better than that…” The cycle doesn’t end. And now we’re back at the original question… just how fast can I get?