Wednesday, September 23, 2020

A Virtual Pacer with Real Results

Today's run on the Bethpage trail

Last February an ignorant orange man told the country that COVID-19 would soon disappear with the heat, "like a miracle." The only miracle is that, seven months later, 42% of the country still believes him. Sadly, we're pretty much where we were the last time I posted (April 28). If there's anything positive I can say about this, it's that on the road things are pretty much the same as they were pre-COVID. Socially distanced outdoor runs don't require runners to wear masks as long as the six foot rule is rigorously maintained. It's really not that hard to do.

It's been about sixteen months since I've had to commute to a job and my time is structured very differently these days. I now get 8 hours sleep every night and my stress level is pretty low. I give a lot of credit to my 6 day a week runs for keeping me healthy. However, I've recently realized that while daily cardio may be great for my vitals and heart health, it doesn't necessarily mean I'm actually in good athletic shape. Can I run five miles without stopping? Yes. Can I run five miles in 42 minutes like I used to? No. Nein. Nyet. 没有.  

During my last checkup in August I asked my doctor why my pace has gone from age group competitive to pathetically slow over the last five years. I'm running a lot more than I was back then and I couldn't understand why all this running wasn't making me any faster. My doctor looked at my chart and said, "Physically there's no reason. You must not be trying hard enough." I knew he was right. I was so inspired that I went out the next morning and did absolutely nothing different because trying was harder than floating through my run.

Since that doctor visit I did try making some changes to my technique that yielded modest speed increases. I focused on cadence and stride length intermittently during runs. The improvement was not dramatic but I did pick up about 30 seconds per mile. Knowing that a little extra effort yielded a marginal performance benefit, I started thinking about ways to really move the needle.

I did a search to see if there was anything online that would inspire me to try harder and I came upon an article about virtual pacers. My old Garmin 210 had alerts that beeped when your pace slowed below a set speed and I was surprised to find a video from DC Rainmaker that showed how to use the virtual pacer feature on my FR35. I had no idea that my watch even had this feature because getting to the menu is not intuitive. But I was able to configure it to beep if my pace went out of range.

Just hit Run > Run Mode > Virtual Pacer > Edit > Set...
My first run was scary because I was so afraid my watch would be beeping like an EKG, with each tone broadcasting my failure to keep on pace. But a funny thing happened. The only time it beeped was to indicate I was ahead or on pace. I was so fearful of the watch's judgement that I ran 1:20 faster than the threshold I'd set. It was like the movie Speed when Sandra Bullock needed to drive over 50 MPH or the bus would blow up. My run was like that but more stressful.

I've been using the virtual pacer (VP) feature on every run I've done since Friday and my pace has been over two minutes per mile faster on each of those runs. The VP is a great motivator but I needed to own the effort. It's a different experience going out with the gas pedal down from start to finish rather than wending my way through my route at a comfortable speed. The sad part is that I'm pushing very hard to run almost three minutes per mile slower than my former everyday running pace.

I'm determined to run 3+ miles at a 9-something pace by the end of the year. I went out to Bethpage this morning to torture myself on the hills and was pleased that I still paced well, even with my bête noire, the big hill that crests near the parking area. If I can keep this up, maybe I can again run alongside the cool kids: SIOR, KWL, Professor Mike and TPP.  Who knew that listening to the doctor could be so helpful!

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