On Perfection and Efficiency by Edmund Milly

In pursuing my goals, I have often been guilty of dispensing with some of the niceties of the process; rather than attempting to find a way around the mountain, I will try to tunnel through it, and waste resources in the process. Stretching didn’t seem to make me a faster runner, so I’d just skip it and pile on more mileage. Similarly, gigs are a way to learn and practice while making money, so why should I care if my schedule left me little time to practice vocal technique on my own?

Some people are too fixated on an abstract notion of perfection to ever get anything done. My problem is that while I get a lot done, I don’t think I’m focused enough on developing perfection.  I can crank out an impressive amount of product of a consistently “good enough” quality, but my ethos towards training and practicing – and even towards writing – has often been more akin to how I imagine a company like Honda than to, say, Ferrari, or the Apple of 10 years ago.

And you know what? I’m generally OK with that. You may not think that the Honda brand is very sexy, but maybe your idea of sexy is misguided. They make things that work – things that are even weirdly perfect in an understated way, like Ikea’s Stefan – and what’s more, their products are renowned for their longevity. 20 or 30 years from now, when I’m still singing and running, I’ll be very happy if I’m still outsinging and outrunning a large percentage of the field, even if I’m not always “number one.” The new iPhone is beautiful for a minute, but it is designed to be tomorrow’s garbage; Honda motors run for ever. Ikea and Honda may not be compelling examples, but what about J.S. Bach or Palestrina? If you get acquainted with the vast repertoires those men produced, you will realize that they had a system, they were efficient, and they knew how to crank that product out.

But. Every once in a while, even we, the efficient producers, have to take the time to slow down and rethink our approach. When I was marathon training last summer, the only thing I cared about was grinding out 70-80 miles per week, by any means necessary. It’s clear to me now that neglecting the many small forms of physical therapy that necessarily complement such training did me a great disservice, one that took my body months to recover from. I am very happy to report that that recovery is finally complete, and I think I’ve learned a lot from it, albeit “the hard way.” I PR’d in every race distance last summer, but my quantitative outlook on training ultimately cost me.

It turns out that increasing your weekly mileage isn’t the only way to improve as a runner. I’m now in my fourth week at 42 MPW and feeling great, with no plans to add mileage anytime soon. Why? Because I have a lot to work on before I can sustainably add mileage. For the first time in my life I have a daily, comprehensive post-run stretching routine, and it’s eliminated some of the leg and back pain I was experiencing. I’m also doing a short mat routine every day: twice a week it’s yoga with a focus on my psoas, twice a week core and back exercises, and twice a week calisthenic strength workouts. It took a long time to own up to the fact that if any one of those elements is missing, my health suffers a little.

In addition to all that, I’m including in every week one tempo run covering about 9% of weekly mileage, and one speed session, also 9%. The other 82% of my distance is made up of easy runs where my heart rate doesn’t at any point exceed 151, and preferably stays close to 140 the whole time. That’s a lot of variables to juggle, and while I have come close, I have yet to nail every one of them in the same week. Striving for the “perfect” 42-mile week has me feeling healthy and fit, and I see no reason I shouldn’t be chasing PRs at a couple of shorter distances within a few months.

There is a pizza place at Nostrand and Fulton which - on a good day - makes what I think may be one of the best $1 pizza slices in the world. Their profit margin has got to be tiny, with three people working 24 hours a day to sell these $1 slices, no matter how cheap the ingredients they use (and I’m sure the ingredients they use are cheap). It’s just hard in today’s economy to get that much dough, tomato sauce, and mozzarella for less than a dollar. So how do they succeed? Probably because they’re moving epic amounts of pie every day. Every time I get a slice, there’s a fast-moving line, and the pie has literally just come out of the oven. I’ve had enough slices from this place to be familiar with the subtle variations and the average quality, and I’ll be the first to admit that it hasn’t always been perfect. But in the past few months, I’ve noticed a trend: their pizza is getting better and better. More even cheese distribution. Improved crust. Perfectly baked. Those guys are not just complacently collecting $1 bills, they’re on to something. They’re honing their craft. And that’s not just delicious, that’s inspiring. As poor as I am, I look forward to the day when they’ve stepped it up to such a degree that they start charging $2 a slice. If dollar pizza can claw its way to the top, so can I.

Started from the bottom, now we here.

Started from the bottom, now we here.

My friend Hasan, the erstwhile proprietor of another noteworthy pizza place of my life, Avelino’s in Fair Haven, once told me that he would have preferred to open a Turkish restaurant, but he thought pizza would be a more reliable business venture. Once, when I was answering some of his questions about what it’s like to make a living as classical singer, he told me to make pizza. “Not actual pizza,” he clarified: what he meant was that I should take care to offer a product that a large audience will need and want. Whether or not Bach’s sacred vocal works possess enough of the universal appeal of pizza to sustain a career remains an open question, in my opinion. One thing, however, is for sure: in pizza, in music, and in marathons, attention to detail matters.

Last chance at Winter 2016 by Edmund Milly

Pardon the long silence! It's been a busy winter, but I intend to get back into the habit of blogging. To that end, I thought I'd share some program notes I whipped up yesterday for today's performance of Winterreise at Sanctuary 1867 in Ewing, NJ with Étienne Lemieux-Després. It's been an invigorating couple of weeks, being constantly on the road, preparing things on the fly. I feel grateful that I got so deeply acquainted with this cycle last year, which made it so much easier to bring back. Anyway, here's what I came up with, which I'm hoping is approachable enough for someone to whom this piece is going to be totally foreign, but substantial enough to offer something to the connoisseur.

A romance ends, and rejection stings. His world destroyed, the poet’s thoughts tumble out in a series of desperate and paranoid metaphors. The world around him is black and white, devoid of sunlight and warmth. Tears freeze to his cheeks before he even acknowledges them. Stray dogs growl at him, and crows throw snowballs at his head. Wait - seriously? This Wanderer character obviously has a bad case of seasonal depression, but nothing seems to make him feel better except talking a blue streak and walking, doesn’t matter where, just out, away from Her.

People often view the Winterreise as a bleak or pessimistic work, pointing to the final song as some indication that our intrepid protagonist, the unnamed Wanderer, has finally “lost it.” This type of critic might say that he devolves from relatively lucid and poetic expressions of heartbreak (the sophisticated nature conceits of #3, 6, 7, etc.) into madness – hallucinations (#14, 19, 23), paranoia (#16), and delusions of grandeur (#22). To some, the portrait of a destitute vagrant organ-grinder which concludes the cycle (#24) is an indication of what the Wanderer will eventually become, or perhaps has already become.

I take issue with this interpretation, and would like to offer a more hopeful outlook. To my mind, the Wanderer begins the cycle as a young man so profoundly depressed and traumatized by a breakup that he is unable to see beyond himself. His own thoughts and feelings constitute his world. The compassion he shows for a total stranger in the final song is a sign that he has begun to escape the hell of his own solipsism. He no longer feels spite and revulsion for other people (as he did in #1, #2, and #17), and his gaze has gone from inward to outward. In “Der Lindenbaum” (#5), the Wanderer reveals that he is constantly tempted by the thought of suicide (“Here you would have found rest”), but, unlike the main character of Schubert’s other great song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin – who explicitly drowns himself at the conclusion of the cycle – the Wanderer somehow just keeps going, even as he continues to long for the peace of death (#14, 21, 23). He may not exactly be bursting with enthusiasm, but, considering that he has avoided temptation so many times, he seems to have made a decision to keep living. The cycle concludes with the suggestion that he could find fulfillment through artistic expression (#24: “Strange old man, shall I go with you? Do you want to play my songs on your hurdy-gurdy?”)

Propagating the view that suicide is the inevitable end result of depression is not just lazy literary criticism, it is also socially irresponsible. In my opinion, Wilhelm Müller’s poems amply support a more hopeful interpretation of Winterreise. There is a certain Romantic trope in works such as Die Schöne Müllerin, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, whereby suicide is portrayed as a glamorous, dramatic gesture. Winterreise remains relevant in the 21st century because the Wanderer escapes these generic, two-dimensional clichés, suggesting that through introspection and travel we can process and rehabilitate even the worst personal traumas.

On Tension by Edmund Milly

The past four weeks have been extremely physically demanding - in fact, much more so than a lot of marathon training I've undergone in the past. But actually, marathon training isn't the culprit this time, as I've been taking some time off from running to try and find my way back to a refreshed state of health; this time, the demands I've been making on my body are entirely due to the amount of singing (and standing) I've been doing. Like all of the challenges we put ourselves through, this intense, relentless period of musical activity has been hugely rewarding. But at the same time, I think it's exacerbated some muscular tension.

Yesterday, it hit me that the crunch time is over, and now I have three weeks to rest, recover, and get ready for my next series of gigs. Even that thought wasn't relaxing, because I immediately started feeling a self-imposed "pressure to relax"! Yeesh. All the tension I'd been storing up in my body and my mind reached a bit of a boiling point yesterday, and only then was I able to let it go.

So, I've just been thinking about the nature of tension. Stress and tension are related, as they're phenomena that can both help and hurt us. Accordingly, we have to regulate them to feel our best. Numerous studies have shown that running necessarily results in a loss of muscular flexibility, and that this loss of flexibility is actually beneficial to performance; the stiffer the spring, the greater its potential energy. Running economy is inversely correlated with the flexibility of certain muscles. But at the same time, many runners seem to obtain performance benefits from judicious targeted stretching or yoga. Similarly, psychological stress is what drives us to achieve, but it is possible to reach a state of mind so saturated with stress that your abilities begin to decline. Worse still, there seems to be a tendency towards comorbidity: if you're stressed, it's probably causing you to hold more tension, and if you build up a lot of physical tension in your body, it probably starts to manifest itself psychologically as stress. (Side note. I realize that these subjective "probably" statements are not very scientific, but I have seen so much scientific research supporting these self-evident truths in the past that I just don't see the point in googling them so I can offer links.)

The tension we hold in our bodies is difficult to release. You release some tension from your muscles when you lose consciousness, but not all of it. Suppose you were to suddenly drop dead - even then, though your muscles would instantaneously lose all their tension, the shape of your spine and the way your limbs hang would not return to normal because of the patterns you've ingrained into them which have effected structural change (e.g. a person with hunched posture who suddenly dies does not completely straighten out, because what used to be tension has become structural).

Here's a game you can play. Last night I spent some time lying face-down, spread-eagled on my bed, trying to imagine I had been dropped from the top of a really tall building and died on impact, and my limbs were no longer holding any of the tension they had in life. This wasn't morbid or depressing at all, and it was surprisingly difficult. It sounds simple, but it's not, and it sounds obvious, but there are times when we all need the reminder. Any position you find yourself in, experiment with playing dead, letting everything go. Bonus: it's hilarious, and if you're stressed, the laughter will probably do you good.

These past few weeks have been a great opportunity to experience the flow of singing all day, every day, waking up still warmed up, and singing some more. Breathing and standing mindfully, remembering that there is a technique to everything we do, and all while making beautiful music with great people. I'm thinking back to the principle I have repeatedly emphasized in this blog, that by not crossing our aerobic threshold (literal or metaphorical) we can develop skills sustainably, without the setbacks that excess stress and overuse can necessitate. Obviously, I overstepped some fine line in my marathon training this Fall, and I've had to pay the price with a break these past few weeks. Maybe I did the same with singing and academics in my final semester at Yale, cramming in so much. But you know what? Every time you cross one of those lines is a learning experience, and you get a little closer to figuring out what exactly your limits are so you can be more successful at avoiding crossing them in the future. Every break you take is a little shorter than the last, because you haven't transgressed your limits as egregiously as the previous time.

Here's to deliberate, mindful recovery, and sustainable skill development in 2016.

Plans, and how to change them by Edmund Milly

Sometimes, things just don’t work out the way you intended. Last time I wrote on this blog, I outlined a bunch of general training principles which could be applied to a plan in more specific ways, and I said that next time, I’d share my training plan geared toward developing speed in shorter distance events (namely, 5K to 10K). But of course, that hasn’t appeared, and the reason why is that I seem to be stuck in this horrible pattern that goes kind of like this: 

  1. Make a really nice, sensible plan that I don’t think is over-ambitious, but which incorporates a few different targeted kinds of training that I think will have a positive effect on my speed.
  2. Attempt to implement said plan, and find that - despite the mileage being much lower than it was all summer, and despite the higher-stress activities being executed in small doses and properly spaced out - I just don’t seem to be recovering properly. My legs feel tired and stiff, and I’m not getting any faster.
  3. Completely redesign the training plan such that it puts lower stress on the body, or spaces the stress out a little more.

The first plan that I made is one that, objectively, I would stand by. It was hardly revolutionary: 42 or 49 miles per week, divided up evenly, in Prospect Park, with about 20% of that mileage in the form of high intensity repetitions and intervals, and a regimen of calisthenics and plyometrics that targeted running muscles. The fact that it wasn’t working for me should have been a wake-up call, after a summer where 80 MPW felt pretty manageable.

But nothing has really felt right in my body these past few weeks. I often wonder if I could pinpoint the start of that to a routine 12-mile run I was doing on September 25, where I suddenly got a very surprising, very clear signal that I was pushing the envelope too far. I was about 6 miles into this run, and suddenly I slowed down dramatically and felt like my effort level went through the roof for no reason. Other than slowing down, I ignored those warnings and finished the 12 miles, because hey, I am a tough guy, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my Baltimore Marathon success by slacking on mileage.

What an idiotic way to respond to a very clear message from my body! And how dearly I’ve paid for it. All Fall I’ve been fighting off illnesses (including the one that sabotaged my Baltimore Marathon finish) and running hasn’t felt right since September 25. Am I experiencing overtraining syndrome? Maybe this is pride talking, but that’s a little hard for me to swallow, given that 80 (mostly very easy) MPW is not even a particularly high training volume for someone who has run 16 straight weeks of 200 MPW. Moreover, Maffetone has led me to believe that if you don’t cross the aerobic threshold (as I really had not in the peak weeks of my marathon training), then your body can handle a much higher training volume.

Or could it be New York’s fault? In the past few months, I have heard an incredible number of anecdotal reports that all agree on one thing: when you move to NYC, you get sick, almost continuously, for a year or two, and after that, your immune system is much stronger. The subway is frequently mentioned as a culprit, overloading your body with strange germs. My own theory, from observing this phenomenon in others, has always been that the immune system of the new New Yorker is taxed by the huge amount of stress/cortisol produced by living in such a place. But I don’t feel too psychologically fazed by New York: I like where I live, I like my job, I have friends and a great domestic partner, so why should I be so stressed? And so I think, well, maybe it really is all the germs.

Whatever the case, it’s been a rough Fall. I went from 50 MPW with workouts every other day, to 40 MPW with workouts every third day, to low impact cross-training every day with lower-impact treadmill incline workouts every third day, to - where am I at again? I don’t even know. I am definitely taking a break from running right now. The purpose of that break is definitely to recover sufficiently to start running again. In the meantime, I am still trying to figure out a good training plan for a runner who does not currently consider it prudent to run much. It may be time to work on my swimming again (ugh, the logistics!)

The consolation prize is one for which I’m grateful: despite all of these challenges to my health, I have felt pretty good about all of my singing performances this Fall. I’ve been sick, but I’ve done what needed to be done (sleep, humidify, neti pot, nyquil, tea, etc.), and, while I have sung with a cold, I haven’t felt that any of my performances were really compromised. Ultimately, we all know I’m a better singer than I am a runner. I’ve faced these challenges as a singer before; my technique is better; my experience runs deeper. It just takes more to mess me up! Thank God for that, because even if it has been a disastrous Fall for my running, it’s been a pretty great one for my singing.

What can be learned from all this? The best you can do when your body just isn’t doing what you want it to do is make a new plan. The more experience you have with injuries and training setbacks, the more likely your new plan is to successfully rehabilitate you and get you back to a more normal routine. One of the best and worst things about my running life has been that I lack experience with injuries… now I’m just catching up.

Hope this Holiday season brings you more health and happiness than stress and illness!

Need for Speed (Part 1) by Edmund Milly

The other day, Alana - evidently inspired by her recent marathon success, but also her awareness of untapped potential - asked me: “How do I get faster?” Well, gee, Alana, it’s funny you should ask, because I happen to have been considering this question myself lately. And, in light of the fact that I’ve recently begun a training block focused on developing my top-end speed, I thought I’d attempt to answer that question in a two-part blog post: first, I’ll attempt to answer Alana’s question in the most abstract way possible, and then I’ll lay out my own practical answer to it in the form of my own personalized training plan for the next few months.

So, how does one get faster? For several reasons, I have always elected to be my own coach. I’ve never had the spare cash to hire a personal coach; I’ve never had the time to commit myself to the schedule of a team or club; for better or worse, I am “Renaissance Vox,” and I have consistently made my preference for learning more and knowing more clear enough. Moreover, the more I learn about the human body, and especially about my human body, the more phenomenological a science (as opposed to an empirical one) it seems. In 2015, when even Alex Hutchinson concedes that feelings are still more accurate than data, it is both a scientific and a political statement to say that there is no one more capable of telling you about your body than yourself.

Still, there’s plenty to learn from the experiences of others. To that end, over the course of the past year, I’ve made an attempt to familiarize myself with the philosophies of a variety of prominent coaches and exercise physiologists. The diversity of their views is staggering: every one of them seems to have a pet issue that they believe is the key to successful training and racing. And that’s why - just like with different schools of critical thought, different schools of singing, different political ideologies - you need to act as your own coach. It’s your job to compile and assess that corpus of research, to distribute its choicest fruits as necessitated by your highly unique individual situation.

  1. Run more mileage to score economy gains. There is much to be said for the benefits of simply running more. Arthur Lydiard, the grandfather of the “LSD” approach, improved even the performances of Olympian 800-meter runners with high mileage aerobic work. Philip Maffetone and Matt Fitzgerald also champion the philosophy of facilitating your body’s physiological adaptations through a large quantity of easy running. Statistical data shows a correlation between weekly mileage and marathon performance. Besides physiological adaptations (larger/stronger mitochondria, increased capillarization, stronger heart, more efficient oxygen transportation throughout the body), the gains in running economy from the practice of running as a skill are huge. Paula Radcliffe’s marathon time went down even as her VO2 max lowered due to economy alone. If you want to be a good distance runner, you have to run a lot of slow, easy miles. Perhaps 80% of your training volume should be run at a heart rate below your MAF number (180 - age).

  2. Boost your VO2 max. Your VO2 max, your maximum volume of oxygen uptake, is the product of your genetics, body weight, and fitness. By performing interval training at your velocity of VO2 max (vVO2), you can increase your body’s ability to take in and use oxygen. vVO2 roughly corresponds to the pace at which you might race a 5K, and the pace at which you run intervals. Pioneering VO2 researcher Jack Daniels suggests a 1:1 work:rest ratio when performing VO2 intervals. (e.g. 2 minutes at 5K pace, 2 minutes easy recovery jog)

  3. Run at lactate threshold. Hard work produces lactic acid in your muscles. Lactate threshold is the point at which the body can no longer clear this byproduct quickly enough to prevent it from increasing exponentially, at which point you will start to feel not good at all. But if you designate some of your training to running at or just below your vLT (velocity of lactate threshold), you can raise your LT and run faster for longer. vLT is said to equate to the pace at which you could race for one hour, so for a lot of runners, vLT is a few seconds slower than 10K pace. When people talk about tempo runs, they are usually talking about 20-30 minutes of running somewhere in the neighborhood of vLT. An example of a tempo workout that would work your lactate threshold might be: 15-20 minutes easy running to warm up, 20 minutes at vLT, 15-20 mins easy running to cool down.

  4. Work your top-end speed. The benefits associated with running faster than vVO2 (5K pace) are both muscular and neuromuscular - running 200m or 400m repeats at your mile race pace may not directly improve your endurance, so your marathon performance might not be affected. However, when you become capable of running a faster mile, suddenly vVO2 will feel easier. When your vVO2 gets lowered, you’ll be able to sustain vLT for a longer period of time, at which point your endurance will increase. Jeff Galloway believes that performance in a 1-mile race / time trial is directly correlated with performance in all longer races, even the marathon. Maybe that’s why Mo Farah (double olympic gold in 5K and 10K, and a 59:22 half-marathoner) can run 100m in 11 seconds in training...

  5. Run at aerobic threshold. This is a little more contentious. Maffetone believes that all training, 100% of your runs, should take place at or just below the aerobic threshold. An ardent believer in the efficacy of training with a heart-rate monitor, he says you should find out your MAF number (180 - age) and then run as close to that HR as you can in every run. In practice, this is quite similar to running at your marathon pace every day, whereas most coaches acknowledge that MP is more stressful than easy-pace running, and accordingly you should only run at MP in order to “rehearse” race pace and build confidence. On the other hand, Maffetone doesn’t prescribe any speedwork, so there is a tradeoff in terms of physical stress. When I trained for my first marathon, I unknowingly followed Maffetone’s advice, instinctively, and I will say this: it made for a very predictable and comfortable race, most of the way. Perhaps it is intuitive for a first-time marathoner to train at race pace every day, because it is so much a matter of merely making it through such a great distance for the first time. As a runner becomes more fit, MP gets further and further away from easy pace: my MP is still by definition my aerobic max, but I feel like it would be pretty hard to run at every day.

  6. Periodization. Cohesive training plans trump week-by-week improvisation because the order with which you string together workouts can make you more or less likely to succeed. According to current research, periodization has a small but measurable impact on performance, with the so-called “traditional” approach (beginning with tempo work and longer intervals, progressing to shorter interval and repetition work) having a slight edge over the “reverse” approach… at some distances. Jack Daniels implicitly championed the “reverse” approach in Daniels’ Running Formula by emphasizing repetitions early on, then intervals, and finally tempo before a scheduled race. Leading researcher Stephen Seiler has acknowledged that the reverse approach may be more effective, depending on the desired outcome (i.e. it may be better for marathoners). But whether you do it forwards or backwards, the syntax of your training plan seems to have an impact.

  7. Get faster by strength training. While strength training is no substitute for running, certain exercises will make you faster, especially ab work, squats, and lunges. Research shows that the plyometric variants of the squat and lunge will give you even more of a boost by lowering the energy cost of running and improving your muscle power. So, Brian MacKenzie of Crossfit Endurance fame has a point… but, if you’re going to run an ultra, you probably shouldn't try it on box jumps alone.

  8. Work on your breathing. The quality (depth) and quantity (rhythmic frequency) of your breathing plays a role in how well you run. If you’ve never paid much attention to your breathing while running, it can be a productive exercise in maximizing the use to which you’re putting your air. Shallow breathing with less engagement of the diaphragm (it should go into your belly, not just your chest) will negatively impact both your singing and your running. I first started experimenting with rhythmic breathing when Daniels’ Running Formula said all elite runners breathe with a 2/2 pattern in perfect rhythm with their foostrikes (2 steps to the inhalation, 2 to the exhalation), and I found that paying attention to these patterns did make me more efficient. I’ve spent a lot of time on easy runs with 3/3 and even 4/4 breathing out of a belief that if I can use even less air, it will force my body to use the oxygen I do give it more economically (and also because it encourages you to take an easy day truly easy), but the jury is still out on that one. Right now I’m trying out the rhythms suggested by Budd Coates in Breathing on Air: 3/2 for easier runs and 2/1 for harder efforts. According to Coates, using these seemingly asymmetrical meters will actually ensure that your body is not asymmetrically stressed; impact is harder on the first footstrike of an exhalation, so most runners who use a 2/2 rhythm will absorb more impact on one side of their body, usually the right. So apparently, paying attention to your breathing can not only maximize your aerobic power, but also safeguard against injury.

  9. Optimize your footwear. There is no one shoe that is better for every runner, but we can all agree that some work better for us as individuals than others. In my case, a minimal drop seems to keep my form honest, a pretty light weight (usually indicating a low profile) seems to allow me quicker turnover, and a small amount of cushioning is sufficient to prevent injury. I think that shoe choice is often a big factor in cadence (the number of times your foot hits the ground per minute, a number which we are often told should optimally be 180). If your cadence is much lower and/or you’re experiencing knee pain, I think a cautious foray into minimalist footwear can prove beneficial. If you have foot pain, then maybe you need more cushioning.

  10. Race more, or race less. Some people stress themselves out trying to complete too many races, and it has a detrimental effect on their health and their training. Others might be able to break out of a training rut and get inspired by racing more frequently. I find that having several races per year (but not more than 10-12) keeps me focused on my goals, in touch with objective markers of my fitness, and motivated to keep improving. Some of my favorite races have low registration costs ($15 for a USATF-certified half-marathon with a post-race feast? It’s amazing what not giving out a crappy t-shirt can do), and with the right mindset, a small-town race can be an even better way to test your fitness than some bloated big-city glamour fest where you’re tightly packed into a starting corral with hundreds of other runners at your pace.

  11. Eliminate stress. Another of Maffetone’s best takeaways is that physical, psychological, and even emotional stress is often the source of a training plateau. Stress can be physical stress that comes from too much anaerobic training, eating poorly, taking in too much caffeine/alcohol or other drugs, or not getting enough sleep. Elite marathoner Matt Llano reminds us that our performance can also suffer from emotional stress - in his case, from struggling with his suppressed sexuality. Be good to yourself and be in touch with what is stressing you out… and you will flourish.

  12. Consume performance-enhancing substances. Some are foods, some are drugs, some are legal, some are not (and some are banned but legal, while some are not banned). I don’t believe in using anything that isn’t legally available to everyone else, but there are various things you can put in your body that have some documented effect on endurance abilities. Beet juice, watermelon, caffeine, amphetamines, anything that boosts testosterone, post-workout and pre-bedtime protein supplements, creatine (not so much for endurance as for strength), fish oil, racetams, various vitamins. Some of it is the dark arts (thyroid medications, prednisone, EPO…), and some of it is just common sense. Probably the best, most legal, and most readily available performance enhancers out there are fruits and vegetables… I mean, this guy is hilarious, but he has a point. Did you know that spinach contains natural phytochemicals that boost muscle growth? There are all kinds of things we haven’t even discovered yet in foods we eat every day.

  13. Know yourself. To reiterate what I said at the beginning of this list, the best way to implement any training strategy or lifestyle tweak is just to pay attention to what works for you, which means a state of constant and equanimous observation of your body and mind. Any one of the previous twelve things could help you get faster, but some of them will work better for you as an individual. Maybe you don’t want to increase your mileage - fine, you can probably improve a lot without doing so. Maybe certain foods work for you and others don’t - cool, pay attention to what they are. Concentrate on what you can do, and you’ll get there!

Next time, see how I’m implementing some of these things in my current, speed-focused training plan for a few upcoming 5Ks and similar distances.

Weinen hilft nichts. by Edmund Milly

I am not particularly adept at coping with failure. The past few days have been hard: hard to approach with a positive attitude, hard to get motivated about anything. A couple nights after I DNF’d in Baltimore, Alana says I called out in my sleep, “I’ve been toiling fruitlessly, all in vain!” I would like to make this self-pity phase as brief as possible, but I also have to acknowledge my disappointment. So let's talk about that Baltimore Marathon.

When I felt a cold coming on the Tuesday before my Saturday marathon, I knew my prospects weren’t looking good. If I was only feeling a slight tickle in my throat on Tuesday, that would give the cold the perfect amount of time it needed to develop into a full-blown illness by Saturday morning. But I did my best to get over it as quickly as possible: tons of sleep, tons of water, ginger-honey-lemon-pepper tea, and nyquil. I was resolved to at least go to Baltimore with Alana and start the race unless I felt dreadful, because the travel and the race registration were sunk costs, and it could still be fun. It was hard to make a race plan, because I didn’t know how I would feel on race morning, but I started to consider my options.

Daniels says that for every 3-4 km of race distance, you need one day of easy running, which means 11-14 days of recovery from a marathon. I’ve heard some people use an even more conservative rule, 1 day for every mile of race distance, and that would mean almost 4 weeks before you can work out again after a marathon. So in those days before the race, I resolved that it would not make sense to push through a sub-par marathon finish just for the sake of finishing, because it would cause me to lose two weeks of quality training time. If I were going to try and run another marathon this Fall, I would be better off not losing those two weeks. And if I wasn’t going to try to run another marathon this Fall - if I was going to move on to a new training block with lots of speedwork and shorter races - well, then I wouldn’t really want to miss two quality weeks to recover from a race where I didn’t even PR, either. Whether it was another marathon or something new, I just wanted to move on, and if I was too sick to run how I wanted to on race day, dropping out a few miles in would help me to move on more quickly.

I’m proud that I stuck to this logical plan, rather than ignoring my sub-par state of health and going for the finish. (Is it cocky if I say that, having run across Canada, I feel I have nothing to prove in the realm of finishing a marathon, even on a bad day?) At the start line, I honestly wasn’t sure how the illness might affect my performance. My nose wasn’t stuffed up or runny, so getting enough air wasn’t an issue, but I did have a lot of crap in my throat, and I had an inkling that my weakened immune system might prevent me from running as fast as usual at a given HR. On the other hand, this was the first marathon I’ve ever run in close to perfect marathon weather (48 Fahrenheit, sunny, and not too windy), so I wanted to at least give it a shot.

A significantly better-than-average national anthem was sung (this is always a very strange moment for me, just before the race, when my mind is on running but it is suddenly jerked back to singing), a gun was shot, and I settled into a conservative, 4-4 warm-up pace for the initial uphill - you gain about 250 feet in the first three miles of Baltimore, and I knew that if I was going to go the distance that morning, I’d need to ease into my race pace (splits were 7:14, 7:01, 7:20). We crested Druid Hill and ran through the park, zookeepers along the course brandishing penguins and ravens as we passed (cool!) Miles 4 to 7 (6:45, 6:30, 6:46, 6:54) were happy miles, because I felt OK, or at least somewhat in control, and it seemed for a moment as if I might actually manage a sub-3 if I could just stay focused, work hard, and keep my HR near 165 and my breathing 3-3. In miles 8 to 10 (7:05, 7:00, 7:02), that hope faded away as I realized I was working much harder than I would usually need to at a pace so far below the 6:40-6:50 race pace I had practiced: I kept leapfrogging with the 3:05 pace group because my body seemed suddenly incapable of keeping a consistent tempo, stomach cramps lurked threateningly in the background, and my HR dropped to the upper 150s as my body said “not today” and my pace sagged. Entering the supposedly lively inner harbor all alone, just behind the 3:05 pace group, I was surprised to see throngs of spectators making no noise whatsoever, just voyeuristically lurking there to watch me fall apart. By mile 10, I knew it was only a matter of time until I dropped out, but I decided I would at least cool down by finishing the segment of the race which went around the inner harbor.

I was running the back portion of an out-and-back segment, and it occurred to me that I might catch a glimpse of Alana headed in the other direction. I love cheering on Alana in races whenever I can, and she had had some mysterious foot cramps the day before which threatened to screw up her own race, so, my own race basically over, I wanted to give her whatever encouragement I could. Usually this means me hooting and screaming at her while she just furiously tries to keep up her own concentration in spite of my harassment, but I also know that she enjoys the attention. The truth was, I badly wanted her to finish, just so that our little team of two might have some success that day, but I also didn’t want to put that pressure on her. When I saw her, I jumped over the little divide and started running alongside her, repeating a segment of the course that I’d just run. “How are you feeling?” I asked. “Not so good… my foot hurts again, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to finish,” she said. I held my tongue and didn’t say how badly I wanted her to finish, how invested I suddenly felt in her success. I find that one can get weirdly, intensely emotional with great suddenness in the middle of a marathon, and this was one of those moments for me. I cheered her on, said to do what she had to do, and turned back around.

I was running through the inner harbor at my cooldown pace, and finally there were spectators shouting words of encouragement. A little boy yelled “you can do it!” at me and I silently thought, “yeah, but I’m not gonna.” A man said “you got this!” and I thought back at him, “your confidence in me is misplaced.” After a .3-mile detour to say hi to Alana and a 2.5-mile cooldown, I cruised through the halfway point at 1:37 and nonchalantly jogged off the course. “Anything in particular I should know about how to DNF? It’s my first time,” I asked a race official. He seemed confused by my question and just told me not to cross the finish line (duh).

The rest of the morning I spent crying, watching fast people finish, eating postrace foods which I’d paid for with my registration but hadn’t earned with a finish, trying to keep warm, and talking on the phone with my mom. She was tracking our splits on the computer and said that Alana had crossed the halfway mark at 2:03, but hadn’t hit the 18-mile checkpoint, so by that time, it seemed likely that she had dropped out of the race, too, probably due to foot trouble. But four hours into the race, my mom called me back and said, “She’s still in the race!” Somehow the 18-mile checkpoint had never picked her up, but she had hit 24 miles at 3:56 race time, and I was overjoyed to hear it. I found a spot to park myself about 500 meters from the finish line and scanned the crowds running by to try and find her. Finally, there she was, and she was looking great for mile 26! I made a ruckus on the sidelines, gave her a high five, and started running alongside the course with her to see her finish. She finished in 4:17:51, a solid new PR, and with much less of a positive split than her first attempt (4:26:15 in Philly last year).

Alana chillaxin' with some free Michelob Ultra in a mylar cape and sparkly red Uggs after a PR finish.

Alana chillaxin' with some free Michelob Ultra in a mylar cape and sparkly red Uggs after a PR finish.

I’ve never been happier for someone else’s success than for Alana that morning. It really saved the day, and gave us something to celebrate. Moreover, when I saw her hobbling around like a 90 year-old lady that afternoon, I couldn’t help but realize I had made an excellent decision in dropping out, and that I’d be back to hard, productive workouts much more quickly because of it. (Recall that DNF stands not just for “Did Not Finish,” but also for “Did Nothing Fatal.”) Races that Alana and I run together have always been special days with a lot of good feelings and a natural high for many hours after, but in this case, having her there was what changed a terrible day into a solidly good one. The same goes for our wonderfully kind hosts in Baltimore, a trio of singers who were formerly “friends of friends” but are now just plain old friends, and for their two dogs, whose licks and enthusiasm made it hard to feel too down.

I feel grateful for the kindness and patience of the people in my life, both that weekend and for all the long months of training before. I definitely “couldn’t have done it without them,” and now it seems that even with them I couldn’t quite do it. In the wake of my DNF, one of the worst feelings I’ve encountered has been a sense of guilt over all the time I spent training this summer. In New Jersey, I could have spent that time with family. At Hornby Island, I could have spent it with the Pipes. At Avaloch, I could have spent that time hanging out with my Trident bros. I am long past the notion that running is a “selfish” endeavor, but it is still hard to think back on all the times I had to force myself to do the uncomfortable thing, to leave the company of friends and family and work for this abstract goal that I never even achieved. My best attempt at consolation is the thought that in the Summer of 2015, I bought and paid for a 2:55 marathon finish. It hasn’t been delivered yet, but it is mine, and it is worth the price. Why am I even feeling bad about dropping out of a race when I was sick? When I eventually do run a marathon again, it won’t be 2:55... it will be faster.

Fortunately, since my cold began on a Tuesday, it was only beginning when I sang in a Trinity Bach at One concert on Wednesday last week, and it was nearly over when I sang in another one yesterday. And how better to soothe the soul and find some moral direction than to delve into some Bach? Yesterday at Bach at One, I sang an aria (see 30:55) with some advice that hit rather close to home:

Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen

Hilft der Sorgen Krankheit nicht;

Aber wer gen Himmel siehet

Und sich da um Trost bemühet,

Dem kann leicht ein Freudenlicht

In der Trauerbrust erscheinen.

There you have it. Weinen hilft nichts. Now, it’s time to get fast… more on that next time.

Running, Singing, and Self-Mastery by Edmund Milly

"The vastest things are those we may not learn.

We are not taught to die, nor to be born,

Nor how to burn

With love.

How pitiful is our enforced return

To those small things we are the masters of."

-Mervyn Peake (1911-1968)

This morning, I found myself mulling over the diametric opposition of ‘the things we may not learn’ versus “those small things we are the masters of” in this poem - the latter category of which Peake gave no examples, but which calls to my mind concrete invention and innovation (technology, language, games) as a contrast to the elemental human experiences he lists (how to die, how to be born, how to love). If things must fall into one of these two camps, where are singing and running? For that matter, did Peake see writing and drawing as small things that he was a master of? Or is it possible they these things fall somewhere in the middle, that they are vaster things?

I am a devotee of Alex Hutchinson’s column for Runner’s World, where he recently probed the question of whether data or feelings is a better way to monitor training and fatigue. Hutchinson’s column is usually notable for its emphasis on empirical data and objective markers (or enhancers) of performance, but here he quotes a study that concludes: “Subjective measures reflected acute and chronic training loads with superior sensitivity and consistency than objective measures.” Which is to say, our attempts at collecting objective data about our bodies are still child’s play compared to the nuances we can perceive with only our bodily senses. This conclusion calls to mind Colson Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionists, about a professional elevator repairwoman who intuits mechanical problems with a greater degree of accuracy than her “empiricist” colleagues.

Maybe running and singing are not such small things because we are never truly the masters of them, anyway. Both have a long list of greats who struggled with maintaining control over their bodies, even as they performed at a higher level than anybody else (Salazar and Callas come to mind). Perhaps the runners and singers who feel most at peace with the degree of control they have over their bodies are those who attempt the least: the joggers who do the exact same loop at the exact same speed every day, the people who go to a community choir once a week. The rest of us seem to encounter an exponentially increasing set of variables which affect performance with each modest increase in skill.

And yet, the reason I run is because it does seem like as effective a route as any towards self-mastery. Running necessitates a close acquaintance with the various processes going on in your body and in your mind. The more situations you run in, the more diverse workouts and long runs you attempt, the more you realize the importance of respecting and regulating these variables to the best of your ability: hydration, blood sugar, ketosis, heart rate, cadence, foot strike, stride length, posture, quantity and quality of sleep, condition of the respiratory mechanism… and so forth. Theoretically, the more aware you are of all this, and the more equanimous you are capable of being in your perception of this even as you try to tweak the variables to your advantage, the more healthy and successful you will be in all your endeavors.

But in the past few days, I have been rudely reminded that running and singing are vaster than my science, that I have not mastered myself. On Thursday, Sept. 24, I was out for a routine 12.7 miles, the exact same run I had done for the past three days, in order to maintain roughly the same weekly mileage I’d held for about six weeks. I thought I knew how it would feel, and suddenly, around mile 8, I felt like I didn’t know much of anything. Runners who shouldn’t even be passing me on my easy days started passing me, I lost the rhythm of my breathing and wondered if I should cut the run short, in the hopes that maybe tomorrow I’d feel better and I could avoid some worse setback. Then the question was, “Should I pay attention to the protestations of my body, or should I put my trust in the objective data?” - the knowledge that in spite of my perceived effort level, a run this length and pace is routine, has felt routine every other day, and the mental conditioning would be valuable.

Disastrous runs do not always look disastrous in the empirical data they present, and disastrous-looking runs aren't always disastrous, either. In the middle of mile 9, I knew something was wrong with this run. The next morning, I knew I probably should have cut it short.

Disastrous runs do not always look disastrous in the empirical data they present, and disastrous-looking runs aren't always disastrous, either. In the middle of mile 9, I knew something was wrong with this run. The next morning, I knew I probably should have cut it short.

I ignored what my legs were trying to tell me that day, and I’ve paid for it with a prolonged taper that started before it was supposed to. Rather than a neat two-week taper that reduced my mileage from 80 to, say, 56 in the first week, and then even less in the last week before the race, I’m going to end up with three weeks of 35-40 miles immediately before my marathon. Is it a catastrophe? Probably not: after all, I got in a very long and very quality training block this summer, and in three weeks of reduced mileage, I doubt that I’ll lose much fitness, even if I can’t gain much. From now until the race, I’m listening to my body, because on race day, I want to be in control; I want to feel fresh at the start, and for that I’ll do whatever I have to. So for the past couple weeks, I skipped long tempo runs and long half-marathon-pace interval workouts in favor of some light speedwork and some core work and plyometrics. After a summer of zombie endurance training, it felt so good to run fast and to do some calisthenics, strengthening my conviction that maybe I should just listen to my body and spend some time focusing on my fastest event, the totally un-prestigious and un-fetishized 5K.

Then, last week was a big week of singing: two concerts on adjacent days, and 30+ hours of singing throughout the week. It definitely went well on the whole. I’m proud of how I navigated my first crunch period at Trinity, and musically I’m just loving the experience, but it was definitely a reminder of all the caution I need to avoid the missteps (transgressions?) that can conceivably ruin my voice for the day: ice cream, alcohol, less than 8 hours of sleep, crossing air thresh in a workout before a rehearsal, not getting up early enough in the morning… those are some of the big ones, anyway.

Besides merely performing my job, I try to make every choral rehearsal productive with regard to working on vocal technique, and this week I found myself thinking a lot about how to stand. I don’t think I’ve even mastered how to stand on two legs, or how to breathe! So my ‘pitiful, enforced return to the small things I am the master of’ consists of less elevated activities: eating peanut butter, sleeping... yes, of these I am definitely a master. For everything else, we will all have to keep working.

Unfinished Business and Renaissance Duathlons by Edmund Milly

I’ve spent more time and effort improving my endurance than most. And yet, despite the marathon’s status as a powerful symbol in my life - almost a mode of being - I’ve never actually finished racing a marathon without feeling utterly demoralized. In Hamburg (2010), Burlington (2011), and Long Island (2015), I crossed the finish line knowing that I’d missed the mark, that I was capable of a better performance than I’d managed to put out.

Demoralized, yet thirsty: when you miss your goal time, drown your sorrows immediately.

Demoralized, yet thirsty: when you miss your goal time, drown your sorrows immediately.

If I plug my 5K time into a race equivalency calculator, it always predicts a 10K time that’s just slightly faster than what I’ve done; if I plug in my 10K time, it gives me a half marathon that’s just out of reach; if I plug in my time for the half, it predicts a better marathon result than I’ve ever posted. This phenomenon strikes me as passing strange for a guy who traversed the world’s second largest country on foot - even kind of embarrassing. And if you count my best 5K time on a treadmill (17:44), it’s hands-down my best event. This is why the marathon still represents unfinished business to me: I can’t feel even remotely satisfied until I break 3 hours.

If only my best 5K really were an accurate predictor for these other race distances! (Plug in your own results at www.mcmillanrunning.com. The closer in distance your goal race and your predictor race, the more accurate it tends to be.)

If only my best 5K really were an accurate predictor for these other race distances! (Plug in your own results at www.mcmillanrunning.com. The closer in distance your goal race and your predictor race, the more accurate it tends to be.)

Is it possible that I’ve been chasing the wrong goals this whole time? Could I innately be some sort of fast-twitch-muscular guy intended for shorter distances, destined for mediocre marathons in spite of a personal obsession? A marathoner trapped in a miler’s body? What if I’m pathologically addicted to pain and failure? Maybe there is truth in some of these ideas, and I do intend to explore my potential as a fast 5K guy after October 17, but at this point, I pretty much consider breaking 3 hours in Baltimore a prerequisite to going forward.

It might seem strange, being so confident that I’ll be able to substantially improve my marathon PR only five months after a massive one (in May at Long Island, I lowered that PR from 3:45 to 3:08). But when I ran Long Island, I felt like the workouts and races I’d run in training indicated that I would be fit to run a sub-3-hour time. Accordingly, I think something(s) must have gone wrong on race day.


What caused every mile split from 16 on to be a little slower than the last? My pacing for the first half of the race was exemplary, given my goal time and the propensity to run positive splits that I was working against. I feel good about how I executed the hydration/fueling plan (in short: drink gatorade every time it is offered, starting early in the race. Sounds crude, but it’s better than I’ve done in the past). I feel good about my decisions not to listen to music (too much distraction from the breathing) or take caffeine (the risk of stomach trouble wasn’t worth it). From a nutrition standpoint, eating anything that wasn’t either free or a clif bar was often difficult in grad school, but in the months leading up to Long Island I did my best to teach my body to run on fat instead of glycogen, to soften the dreaded bonk. (Those efforts included a brutal, week-long, protein-sparing modified fast during which I ate only about 500 calories’ worth of pure protein every day and went for 8 or 9-mile runs.) When the bonk came, it was more gradual and less painful than it had been in Hamburg, but I bonked anyway.

Mile splits from the Long Island Marathon as recorded by my Garmin Forerunner. After fairly solid pacing for the first 16 miles, I started to fade.

Mile splits from the Long Island Marathon as recorded by my Garmin Forerunner. After fairly solid pacing for the first 16 miles, I started to fade.

Obviously, I couldn’t control the weather. After a winter of the same old bullshit every week, “Snowpocalypse” this and “Polar Vortex” that, my race day was by far the hottest, sunniest day of the year, with not a cloud in the sky or one tree’s shade to prevent my getting fried on the Wantagh Parkway, which comprises most of the Long Island course. I was probably overdressed, skimpy as my kit was, and that much I can control (winner Oz Pearlman went shirtless with a hat to provide a little shade / sweat collection -  sagacious choices).

I have considered the possibility that the long runs I did in training were not long enough. I embraced the Hansons’ method of never going for a continuous run of longer than 2 hours in training, and in practice, this meant I maxed out around 17 miles. Their argument is compelling, and Jack Daniels makes a similar one: that you stop gaining physiological adaptations from a run longer than 120 minutes (Daniels says 150), and that running more than 25% of your weekly mileage at a time puts you at risk of injury. ‘Do the workouts, run high mileage throughout the week, and the long run will be like the last 16 miles of the marathon instead of the first 16,’ they say. These are some of the top marathon coaches in the US, so I’ve tried to quell my skepticism, and I stuck with that protocol for this training cycle, but ramped up my weekly mileage considerably, starting at 60 and working up to 80, where I’ve stayed for weeks. Maybe at the end of the day, I just wasn’t able to put in the volume I needed to run a successful marathon in my last semester of grad school - if so, at least this summer’s been rock-solid by comparison.

Heart rate: the average for the race came out to 165, including a prolonged spike in the first couple miles, which is interesting. I had assumed that since Maffetone’s formula gave me a maximum aerobic HR of 158 (180 - age = 153, +5 for being injury-free and making progress), I should expect an average around 158 if I was going all-out in the marathon. But Larisa Dannis - another disciple of Maffetone who is my age and has a similar running background, just far more successful - says 165 is where she needs to be in the marathon. I’d like to ask her about this apparent contradiction; how can your HR indicate that you’re above aerobic threshold in a race distance that forbids it? Maybe what I didn’t take into consideration is the role that psychology can play on HR, because we get excited in races. Anyway, the point is that I felt like I was working precisely the right amount of hard. Breathing started out 3:3 and eventually switched to 2:2 sometime in the second half. I had never before felt so focused on the task at hand.

Author's heart rate during the Long Island Marathon, averaging 165 BPM with a big spike in the first couple miles.

Author's heart rate during the Long Island Marathon, averaging 165 BPM with a big spike in the first couple miles.


The ever-lucid Alex Hutchinson recently touched on perhaps the most compelling reason for my sub-par performance at the Long Island Marathon: mental stress. I did my best to lower my non-running-related stress during my taper, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about the fact that the week before the race was my last week of grad school classes. 11 hours before I toed the line at Long Island, I was standing in front of an orchestra on the stage of Alice Tully Hall singing Beethoven. Small detail. A few hours later I would wake up at 4:30 am and drive a car (something I never do) to Long Island, praying for a parking spot. Talk about cortisol levels! This was very far from an ideal race weekend scenario. Hutchinson says:

Book a prerace dinner reservation, figure out race-day logistics, and set aside a good book to read or movie to watch (but not War and Peace). Oh, and turn off your work email. You've invested a lot of effort to get your body in peak form, so make sure your mind is just as primed to compete.

“but not War and Peace”!? LOL. Now that is how I  actually relax. And turn off my work email!? Obviously, all of this is great advice, but I simply wasn’t in a position in life to follow it. Being in the voxtet is all-consuming, and it was kind of hilarious that I even attempted to run a marathon during that crunch time. If there is one factor that certainly lowered my race-day performance, it was this, that my marathon was not so much an event in itself as part of a larger event, like the marathon at the end of an Ironman triathlon.

In fact, I have a term for this phenomenon. A renaissance duathlon is any event which combines an athletic performance with a performance which is less strictly physical in nature. Most frequently, these occur in my life as a harder-than-average run coinciding with singing a concert. In grad school, I did my long runs on Saturdays, and often had to sing concerts a few hours after them, so I made up this term to describe the exhilarating and challenging sensation of working your mind and body at a high level.

It is not always obvious that performance in either leg suffers in a renaissance duathlon. Not unlike in an actual triathlon - where running speed is not as directly affected by having just swum as it might be by running a longer distance or, say, doing a hundred squats, because swimming and running use your muscles differently - running and singing use your body and mind in different enough ways that one does not always detrimentally affect the other. Perhaps on a good day they can even work together to produce a special result: I’m thinking of the memorized run-through of the Winterreise that I sang for Jimmy and Tom after an icy 18-mile training run, a performance during which I felt vocally strong and mentally focused. I also sang a concert with Northern Harmony immediately after my first marathon in Hamburg, and felt fairly chipper. But as a rule, the things that we do draw from finite bodily resources. If you do x and then y, it might not be your strongest y.

Here we run into a problem that is almost philosophical in nature: if performance always suffers from adjacent activities, how often and to what extent should we “do nothing” in the time adjacent to a performance? Wouldn’t your mind stagnate, your abilities plateau? Is doing nothing even possible for a busy young professional? I know a lot of singers who approach their performers with a greater degree of reverence, or perhaps in some cases superstition, than I do. By contrast, my strategy has been to maximize productivity and lower stress by treating performances (in music and athletics) as events that are necessarily limited in the amount of special treatment they can be given. No one can give 100% of their psychic and physical resources, 100% of the time. One might have to give 100% for a few special occasions a year, but most of the time, 80% will just have to be good enough. (And the beautiful thing is, if you’re really good at what you do, the difference between when you’re operating at 80% and 100% intensity will only be discernible to a select few. If you need to impress them, then maybe this is one of those few occasions per year.)

Suffice to say that I think I could have run a faster marathon than 3:08 if it had not been the final leg of a several days-long renaissance duathlon, and I’m going to do my best to make sure that Baltimore isn’t the same way for me.

Sum up a race experience with three things that you think you did well, and three things that you can improve on in the future. Here’s what I did well in May:

  1. Pacing

  2. Hydration / nutrition

  3. Breathing

And here’s where I can improve on 19 days from now, in Baltimore:

  1. Consistent mileage (check)

  2. Wear as little clothing as possible

  3. Lower mental stress during taper, particularly the day before the race

Rethink your rest day: improve performance by running 7 days a week by Edmund Milly

In a previous post, I mentioned that my current personal philosophy for running and life is: “if you suffer a little every day, you’ll never suffer a lot.” In this post, I’d like to make my case for running 7 days a week, rather than the commonly prescribed 6. Most recently, I’ve seen the 6-day prescription endorsed by Dane Rauschenberg in an entry on his Runner’s World blog. He says of rest days:

I did some coaching for a while, and the most annoying thing was telling athletes to take a rest day and then noticing they ran an “easy three.” That isn't rest. The year I ran 52 marathons in a row was also the year I ran the fewest miles I’ve run in a year since I have been keeping track. I averaged a 3:21 marathon by knowing I needed to give my body time to recover, or at least as much time as was possible. Without rest, our bodies simply can’t repair, rebuild, and strengthen. If you feel guilty or weak for taking a recovery day, do some pushups. After about 100, you will be cool with your rest day.

Side note. Dane’s track record of dramatically improving his own running performance makes him someone worth listening to - in 2001 he ran his first marathon in 4:12, and in 2006 he ran 52 marathons with an average time of 3:21. There aren’t really a whole lot of running role models like that: somebody who started out pretty average and gradually dropped their PR by more than an hour. It often seems like most well-known marathoners are either bucket-listers (the type who finish one marathon in the middle of the pack to prove that they could, of which Oprah is the best-known exemplar) or the elites (whose ways are not our ways, nor their thoughts our thoughts; they sprang into the world as elites, they competed in high school and college, and they can do incredible things, but they cannot drop an hour from their marathon PRs). So when someone like Dane Rauschenberg, or Larisa Dannis, or Scott Jurek (borderline - he ran in high school, but at least he was the worst on his team) has advice, I’ll hear them out.

But I’ve had a paradigm shift regarding rest days. The way I think now, a rest day doesn’t have to be a day that you do nothing, it just has to be active recovery - an activity light enough that it gives your running muscles a chance to recover, whether that’s cross-training that uses different muscles (bike, swim, strength, yoga) or a lighter run (less distance, slower pace). In the 143 days since May 3 (the day I ran the Long Island Marathon) I’ve only had 16 days without a run, and May 4 was not one of them. This means that on average I’ve taken 1 day off from running out of every 9, but in fact, most of those were accidents: 4 of them were due to 12-hour travel days, a few were due to graduation and moving to NYC, and a few were due to a brief cold (or maybe allergies?) I caught from everyone else in Schola Cantorum at the beginning of June. So in my experience, days without running happen often enough without trying: no need to dogmatically take a day off once a week, because you’ll probably regret it when you don’t manage to fit in a run a few days later.

Why should you care? Because in those same 143 days, I’ve PR’d in each of the “canonical” road race distances: the marathon (May 3), 5K (May 17, after two weeks of very easy recovery runs), 10K (July 4, after weeks of steady easy mileage, the occasional speedwork, swimming and cycling), and the half (September 19, at the end of an 80-mile week with no “taper,” in the thick of marathon training). I’ve found that as long as you moderate the intensity of your runs, a high training volume is not a problem. Why has this approach worked so well for me, and what made me change my mind?

  1. It’s easier to sustain high weekly mileage when it’s divided over 7 days instead of 6, even at the expense of that rest day. If you’re running 84 MPW, that means 14 miles a day if you take a weekly rest day, but only 12 miles a day without one. In my experience, 12 x 7 puts less stress on the body because the distance is more manageable.

  2. The psychological benefit of maintaining a running “streak” is invaluable. An intentional day off every week has always wreaked havoc on my attempts to maintain the habit of running every day - one day off always seemed to turn into 2 or 3. Even now when I miss a day, it’s harder to go running the next day than it would have been without the day off.

  3. Maffetone’s Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing really opened my eyes to the restorative power of easy aerobic work. Maffetone says that taking the day off after a big race is a big mistake; the earlier you can start your active recovery process from a hard anaerobic effort the better. Lactic acid has accumulated in your muscles, and stress hormones have been released throughout your body. Going for an easy recovery jog flushes these things out and makes your muscles less sore the next day.

  4. In Daniels’ Running Formula, Jack Daniels says that you shouldn’t consider your recovery process from a race complete until you’ve logged one day of easy running for each 3 to 4 km of race distance: accordingly, you need two days to recover from racing a 5K, and up to two weeks to bounce back from a marathon. Note his wording! It’s not that you need one “rest day” for each 3 to 4 km, but rather one day of easy running. If you took a day off after racing a Saturday 10K, the earliest you could possibly put in a speed workout would be the next Thursday, whereas skipping the day off could get you back to speed by Wednesday… which would give you more time to recover for whatever the next weekend’s plans might entail (a tempo or a long run perhaps). Daniels’ message is the same as Maffetone’s: the earlier you start logging recovery runs, the better.

  5. Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running also extolls the virtues of logging lots of easy miles, because they deliver the greatest gains in running economy. Fitness gains from intervals (VO2 max) and tempo runs (lactate threshold) will fade away when you take away those elements from your training, but gains in running economy are forever. Every mile you run, your body and mind teach you to run more “skillfully” - as Fitzgerald puts it, with more “relaxed smooth ease.” Therefore, the more miles you run, the better a runner you will become. And how do you log more miles without putting yourself in danger of injury? By making sure your workouts don’t comprise more than 20% of your weekly mileage. It’s the same principle that Terry Laughlin always comes back to in Total Immersion (albeit regarding swimming), that learning economy of movement will always trump fitness, in a way that is permanent, safe, and sustainable.

  6. Endurance training - particularly for the marathon - is about racking up the cumulative fatigue necessary to develop certain physiological adaptations. If you want those adaptations, you will have to do without the feeling of “fresh” legs. Luke Humphrey, author of Hansons Marathon Method, gave me another epiphany when I saw his training log leading up to a marathon PR of 2:14:37. Guess what? 15 weeks of 100 to 130 miles per week, and one day without a run (in week 3! Not in his modest taper.) If you want to run like Oprah (hey, 4:29:20 is good enough for a lot of people, and more power to them), then train like Oprah. But if you want to run like an elite, why not start emulating their practices?

So, to summarize: run the highest training volume (miles per week) that you can sustain, spaced out evenly over 7 days. Never run more than 20% of your training volume at an intensity that exceeds your air thresh. Develop the skill of feeling out the state of your body, because if you listen, your body will be such a conservative moderator of intensity that you have little to fear in the way of overtraining, even if you run every day. Focus on developing economy, not on boosting your VO2 max.

Developing the practice of running every day has taken me years of baby steps, so I know that it’s easier said than done. Neither am I recommending that someone who currently runs 3 days a week should start running 7 days a week. Running across Canada with less than one rest day per week made me realize that the prescription of taking a seventh day off was arbitrary, and probably had more to do with religious and cultural practices than with physiological need. Ironically, I also made a lot of progress during the year and a half I took off from running, because I developed the habit of working out in some way every day, whether it was calisthenics training or bike commuting (but usually both).

I used to worry that performing the same calisthenics moves every day (e.g. pushups, pullups) would cause overtraining - aren’t you supposed to only work out the same muscle groups every other day? But I noticed that the bar athletes I was learning from on youtube had no such assumptions, and that they had stronger, more functional bodies than traditional bodybuilders. It’s another case of volume vs. intensity. As my aunt and uncle, Kathy and Mike (who are globally-ranked crossfit badasses) put it when I asked about the safety of doing pullups every day: if you want to improve performance, then the best way to do it is by practicing that move every day (duh!)

Anecdote time. Circa 2009, my sister and I were heavy into martial arts. We trained in taekwondo, but we loved it all, and I had a real weakness for martial arts films, so one rainy day during exam period, we went to check out the over-the-top “Ninja Assassin” at the Scotiabank Cinema in downtown Montreal. It was sort of the apotheosis of the ninja movie, a cultural product that by all rights should have been produced in the 1980s. There was a line that stuck with both of us, when the cruel yet efficacious master of the ninja school says to Raizo over their evening bowl of gruel, “Eat today, and you work twice as hard tomorrow.” Gemma said, “I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t you eat today, so that you can work twice as hard tomorrow?” At the time, I agreed, but now, through the lens of my experiences in endurance training, maybe now I understand the underlying idea: when your training volume is so high that you absolutely cannot work twice as hard tomorrow, then your only option is to deprive yourself of a little comfort today so that you don’t have to attempt it. Suffer a little every day, and you’ll never suffer a lot.

I guess even ninjas have to carb-load every once in a while.


Performance as Transgression & the Narrows Half by Edmund Milly

Every race and every concert - every performance - is a transgression, a step across a threshold. In a race, that threshold is your aerobic threshold, and also the starting line. In a concert, that threshold is manifested literally as the stage door, and metaphorically as all of the laws and conventions which govern it. I have a theory that our success is correlated to the deliberateness with which we cross these thresholds. Imagine that your aerobic threshold is a literal, physical threshold, a doorway to another place. We all venture into this other place from time to time, but why? Many people transgress their aerobic threshold seemingly at random: provoked by another runner in the park who tried to pass them, or by a sudden gust of emotion. But some of us transgress that threshold with cold calculation, and when we do it, we aim to dominate.

I had an acting coach at Yale who called the bow of the piano - the area where a singer stands in performance - the “Scary Place.” He always stressed that a different set of rules govern human experience in the Scary Place. In racing and in performance, this zone beyond the threshold of everyday experience, this Scary Place, is a place where the stakes are raised, normal rules are suspended, and mistakes carry more severe consequences. When Alberto Salazar ran the Falmouth Road Race in 1978, his legendary anything-to-win attitude compelled him to cross so far beyond his threshold into some Scarier Place beyond the Scary Place that he collapsed, and was allegedly read his last rites before coming back from the brink of death. For Salazar and for us, there are some thresholds that one would be wise not to step across, from which one might barely recover regardless of the degree of deliberateness with which they are crossed. Rasknolnikov comes to mind now, with his compromised immune system and what Maffetone might call the “mental injury” inflicted by his moral transgression (Crime and Punishment is a less etymologically faithful translation of the title of Dostoevsky’s novel than Transgression and Punishment). Perhaps Salazar, whose competitive career was cut short by the symptoms of overtraining, is the Raskolnikov of the marathon.

Artist's rendering of what it feels like to cross the threshold into Scary Place. Upstairs, Alberto Salazar sits brooding.

Artist's rendering of what it feels like to cross the threshold into Scary Place. Upstairs, Alberto Salazar sits brooding.

In music, the life-or-death aspects of being on stage are less literal, although the life or death of one’s career is often thought to hang on the performer’s one big shot (a major concert, an important audition, or the magnanimity or harshness of a random critic). The central conceit of the delightfully campy B-movie “Grand Piano” (2013) makes this clîché literal: the pianist-protagonist, already filled to the brim with anxiety over playing a wrong note, is told by a psychotic sniper in the audience (John Cusack!) that he will be shot, on stage, if he plays a wrong note.

Perhaps I am lucky that early conditioning at the American Boychoir School has left me with considerable sangfroid when I transgress the threshold of performance. Between the ages of 10 and 14, I saw many strange and sometimes disastrous things occur on stage: I remember the harmonium catching on fire in a performance of the Inferno movement of Liszt’s Dante Symphony at Avery Fischer Hall, I remember nodding off inconspicuously while waiting for the NY Phil to get through the interminable instrumental movements of various Mahler symphonies so I could sing in the finales, and I remember three or four boys fainting under the bright lights of a very hot concert hall in upstate New York. We performed so frequently and under such diverse circumstances, that it became rather difficult to faze us.

In contrast to this attitude, there are advantages and disadvantages to the relatively jittery state I sometimes find myself in when I transgress my aerobic threshold with the intention of proving myself in a race. On one hand, my greenness means that I stress more about making a poor decision in any one of the many race-day binaries I’m still figuring out. To caffeinate or not to caffeinate? Shades or no shades? Which shoes? What should I eat and when? But on the other, I think it is good to retain a keen awareness of the fact that you are crossing that threshold, that you are putting yourself on the line. I have taken part in performances as a professional chorister, in which I was not really putting myself on the line in the same  way, so I always try to be conscious of the gravity of each performance situation and give it the degree of intensity or emotional investment it deserves. With singing as with running, you can’t go hard every day. I’ll sing in 50+ concerts between now and June 2016 (and they’re all important), but a smaller number will be solo performances. On the other hand, I will probably not race more than 10 times in the next year, and I’ll be putting a lot of pressure on myself when I do...

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… kind of like I did this morning! Sorry, I do not always come around to the point right away; I suppose this post could have started with “Wooo, just ran a half-marathon PR!” Somewhere out there, someone appreciates or will appreciate that this is not just another running blog.

So yes, I ran the Narrows Half Marathon this morning. I lowered my PR from 1:29:27 to 1:27:47 (6:42 pace), but - call me ungrateful - I’m disappointed not to have lopped at least four minutes off that previous time, which was run on very hilly, iced-over dirt roads over six months ago. My fitness was definitely sufficient to run a 1:25 today (6:29 pace), and my first five miles were on track for that. I am proud that I think I did not commit a pacing error, but in mile six I started getting some bad stomach cramps. From there to the end of the race, it was like there was this totally artificial speed limit imposed on my body that had nothing to do with what my legs and lungs were capable of, but rather with what my stomach could tolerate. I’ve experienced this a few times on hard runs, and I think it might be caused by caffeine, specifically caffeine in pill form (1 x 200 mg, a fairly innocuous dosage). A good day with caffeine is better than a good day without caffeine, but in my experience, these pills might raise the probability of it suddenly becoming a bad day, so I’d say this is the last time I make that mistake! In the future, if I keep using caffeine when I commit transgressions, I’ll administer it some other way.

The Verrazano Narrows Bridge, just visible through morning mist before the race.

The Verrazano Narrows Bridge, just visible through morning mist before the race.

ut it was a cool race and, as always, I had a great time, cramps aside. I like NYCRuns races with their relatively small crowds (a mere 184 finishers at this one), low-ish costs, and solid organization. The course was as flat as flat gets and had some nice views of the bridge as the whole thing ran right along the water. We even got cloud cover for most of the race, which I really appreciate, and it could’ve been cooler, but there was a nice breeze. What most impressed me was that the field seemed really experienced and competitive for such a small race: I only came in 12th overall (2nd in my age group, a hollow victory when you’re M20-29), and I didn’t pass anyone from start to finish (got passed twice, both after the GI issues hit). When the race started and I saw nine guys pull ahead of me right away, I was sure some of them were probably going out too hard, but it turns out they were just fast runners. I’d rather run in a gritty little race like this any day than in some bloated monster of an event with an expensive registration due to the free garbage / totally lame and unnecessary DJ / hordes of ostentatiously-clad joggers doing their thing on a gridlocked course. People were friendly in a runnerly way, and I had a great conversation with the M60-69 winner on the subway ride home: badass age-groupers are so inspiring. So it was a fine day. Pity about my finish time, but a little remorse will keep me honest in my training.

To tie it all together: o endurance gods, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. This morning I trespassed my own air thresh (just barely), and I was trespassed upon by 11 fast dudes. “As we forgive,” but not “as we forget”… I’ll be seeing you guys next time.

This is your body on music by Edmund Milly

Kit Fox of Runner’s World wrote a blog post yesterday detailing a common enough dilemma - he’s become dependent on listening to music while he runs, and he’s getting anxious about how he’ll run the Marine Corps Marathon (which doesn't permit earbuds) without it.  He asks:

For the music-less purists out there, how do you stay focused during a three hour run with only your pounding footsteps to keep you company?

This has always been a topic of great interest to me as both a musician and a runner, and I also used to depend on music to get me through certain types of runs (e.g. long runs, tempo runs, runs in demoralizing weather, interval training… I guess that about covers it!) But sometime in March, just weeks before the Long Island Marathon (for which I had already meticulously compiled a killer three-hour playlist) I completely stopped listening to music on runs, and my iPod has seen little use since then. What happened?

I have always had an on-and-off relationship with music while running. My intuitive belief has always been that music is, like caffeine, a legitimate performance enhancer which only enhances performance if you don’t build up a tolerance to it. Studies have shown that 3 to 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, administered an hour before an endurance event, can improve performance by approximately 5%. But does a cup of coffee in the morning make you faster when you drink it every day before your run? My thinking is, of course not - it just ensures that you won’t be slower than usual. I think to reap the benefits of caffeine use, you have to employ it strategically, a choice not unlike the deliberations we make about whether or not it’s a good moment to cross one’s aerobic threshold. In my experience and my gut feeling, this is how music acts on the brain, too. In the spirit of living deliberately, of having true control over my body and mind, I have always disliked the idea of depending on music to run.

I first started to get really into listening to music while running back in 2009-2010, when I was gradually increasing the distance I ran, and eventually training for my first marathon (Hamburg 2010). My playlists from this time in my life would probably be hilarious to many runners, as they heavily prioritized hot baroque jams, fugues, stuff with good fortspinnung and relentless basso continuo. My favorite playlist for a hard 30-minute run was Handel’s Dixit Dominus with all the slow movements taken out, and my epic playlist for the Hamburg Marathon started with Zelenka’s whole Missa Votiva and moved on to some nice Vivaldi viola d'amore concertos...

This was the music I was most excited about at the time, but in retrospect, it was a gateway drug which led to stronger and louder things, all of which contributed to my building up a tolerance. When the music of the 1700s was no longer loud and fierce enough for running, I moved on to my favorite rap albums, and eventually to technical metal with lots of polyrhythmic guitar shredding and angry screams, another great genre to run to (think Dillinger Escape Plan, Meshuggah, TesseracT, Animals as Leaders…) I was upping the dosage, and I think I eventually maxed out on the intensity and how it could contribute to my run. When you run with music, are you borrowing someone else's intensity? Why not cultivate your own?

The playlist I made for the Long Island Marathon in May, and ultimately did not use after transitioning to runs sans musique.

The playlist I made for the Long Island Marathon in May, and ultimately did not use after transitioning to runs sans musique.

But ultimately, the ability to breathe calmly and rhythmically while running (without creating unmanageable polyrhythms)  might be the most important part of my move away from running with music. This past Winter, in hopes of becoming a better runner and finally breaking the 3-hour barrier, I turned to several books, among them Jack Daniels’ Daniels’ Running Formula. Daniels recommends running with a consistent breathing pattern, 3-3 on an easy day (3 footfalls to the inhalation and 3 to the exhalation) and 2-2 in a race, and he also says that 180 beats per minute has proven to be the optimal cadence for elite runners of all distances. Accordingly, on an easy day, both inhale and exhale should last exactly one second, and be coordinated with every three steps.

I am willing to consider the possibility that there exist certain demonstrably superior practices which can enhance performance, particularly if these practices are endorsed by as renowned an expert as Jack Daniels (no relation... man, and my voice teacher is already James Taylor). I've found that following these guidelines has changed for the better the way I run. Air thresh is about sustaining an even level of effort, with no spikes in heart rate. If you are performing an aerobic activity, surges ultimately detract from your performance, the same way you can run 5 miles faster at an even pace than if you run 5 miles of interval training. A consistent heart rate that walks the knife’s edge between working too hard and not working hard enough, a cadence of 180, and a consistent breathing pattern are all tools to help runners achieve optimal aerobic performance and prolong endurance. In the six months since I stopped listening to music on the run and started paying attention to my breath, I’ve PR’d several times: first in the Long Island Marathon (3:08), two weeks later in a 5K (18:15), and a few weeks after that in a 10K (37:59). I will set a half-marathon PR without music tomorrow morning, and in four weeks my marathon time will fall again in Baltimore. Not all of my improvement is attributable to running without music, but it has helped me adapt a regular cadence, smooth breathing, and a consistent heart rate.

Theoretically, I could create a playlist that was exactly 180 bpm from start to finish - either by exclusive selection of music that adheres to that tempo (I’m told that dubstep is always 60 bpm, for instance), or by doctoring up my favorite songs with an editing program - but I haven’t done this. Why? Because so much would be lost in such a playlist. Music has an ebb and flow, as most of it is not made by machines, and I would like to respect the original tempo choices of the artists. Something seems off to me about altering music I like and respect to suit a practical purpose, and, moreover, with a homogeneous tempo I feel like I’d lose some of the most inspiring changes of tempo in a good running playlist.  The ever-shifting mixed meters that a “math metal” band like Animals as Leaders use interfere with a regular breathing pattern, too, but they’re also invigorating and mentally stimulating. And finally, I’d need to formulate different playlists in duple, triple, and quadruple time (all at 180 bpm) in order to accommodate the rhythmic demands of my easy days (when I breathe 4-4), my air thresh runs (3-3), and my races (2-2). I could  even use software to compress the dynamic range of my favorite classical music, so as to avoid the lulls that happen when the volume is too low to fully appreciate through cheap earbuds while you’re running fast.

Perhaps someday I will do all these things, because in the end, I am the type of runner who has a nuanced relationship with the music they listen to, but is also trying to optimize performance. But in the meantime, it isn’t worth the trouble, as I generally try to run without music to keep my breathing in check, improve my focus, and simulate the conditions of race day. I love music too much to listen to it every time I run, and it is also too powerful a boost to use every day.

On a side note, when I ran across Canada, I left my iPod at home: listening to music while running on the Trans-Canada Highway just isn’t a safe idea. Maybe the 6-hour runs without music were good for my psyche. And maybe runners with earbuds in are always deprived of some very important environmental stimuli. I kind of didn’t want to dredge up the safety issue, since I believe it is possible to run safely with headphones if you are alert enough and well acquainted enough with your environment, but if you’re weighing the pros and cons, don’t forget it.

So there you have it, a whole manifesto for how and why I don’t run with music which never once included that annoying type of rhetoric which Mr. Fox justifiably mocked in his original post:

Purists always argue that headphones are a distraction; that you can’t be one with the run and reach a Zen-like state of euphoria unless you just free your ears and listen.


Happy running, whether you choose to boost your performance with your favorite tunes or choose to deprive yourself of them so that boost will be more fun and effective next time. But whatever you do, pay heed to your breath.

Air Thresh: Prologue, Part 2 by Edmund Milly

I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning and practicing different aspects of the two principal physical activities which define my life: singing and running. What I realized around the time I got my Yale audition was that it would be silly to have spent all that time singing, and yet, not bother to put all those pieces together and realize my full potential as a musician. I acknowledged that I was a singer, and that I needed to make good on that identity. I don’t think I could have had that epiphany without the more distanced perspective that running across Canada gave me on my own life, and it went hand-in-hand with the way I eventually approached my return to running. Since the first day I stepped on a treadmill, sometime in Fall 2007, I’ve had some pretty intense learning experiences. When I finished running across Canada, I eventually realized it was time for me to put it all together and leave the ignorant jogger in me behind. It was time for me to accept the reality that I was, in fact, a runner (a word I was for a long time reluctant to even apply to myself), and make some effort to be a good one.

“Air thresh” is my shorthand for aerobic threshold: that is, the maximum level of exertion which doesn’t tap into your body’s anaerobic resources. According to Maffetone, an individual’s aerobic threshold, or ventilatory threshold, corresponds to a specific heart rate, and by keeping your running under - but close to - this threshold, you exert a sustainable level of stress on your body. Rather than working out too hard and risking burnout or uneven performance, Maffetone suggests doing all your runs at this precise intensity which provides the maximum amount of benefit to your endurance abilities. After all, even the 5K and the mile are predominantly aerobic: thus, developing your endurance will do more for your speed than any workout, although the process is slow. Most people, however, think they should suffer every time they go for a run (or think their aerobic pace is embarrassingly slow), so they transgress their air thresh and sabotage their fitness and health goals. Incidentally, air thresh corresponds to marathon race pace, because the marathon is long enough that it is said to recruit energy from resources which are 99% aerobic, whereas the mile, 5K, 10K, and half all involve slightly greater percentages of anaerobic work.

I find Maffetone’s rhetoric compelling, and the concept of an optimally efficient workout intensity has caused me to reflect that if you suffer a little every day, you’ll never suffer a lot. But if you get greedy with your suffering - if you, in the words of Lyle from Infinite Jest, try to pull unto yourself a weight which exceeds your own personal weight - then you’ll reap more suffering than you ever meant to sow, and you certainly won’t improve as a runner while you yo-yo between hard workouts and injury-induced lassitude (I like the diversity of meanings which Maffetone ascribes to the word “injury” - a runner’s injury can be physical, mental, or chemical…) This is where running is and has always been philosophical, where discipline and maturity still trump talent and ability.

Throughout my life, I have been lamentably greedy with my suffering. Time and time again, I have attempted to sustain an unsustainable workload in my various passions, and each time I make great progress before I suddenly find myself in need of a long break, a break during which much of that progress is lost. This tendency is the reason I was once able to speak Russian fairly well, and now am too afraid to try. My obsession for counterpoint manifested itself in contrapuntal dreams from which I’d wake with a head full of elusive chromatic points of imitation, but it’s been a long time since I wrote any music. And obviously, my prolonged break from running was the product of an unsustainable obsession. (Dare I extend the parallel into my personal life? Did so many of my past love relationships fail to endure because my affections were obsessive, anaerobic? If those breakups were like poorly trained marathoners  hitting the wall, I was usually the head, saying, “I can keep going! I’m still so into this, stay with me!” and my girlfriend was usually the battered legs, saying, “nope, we’re done.”)

How can I keep the things I love from slipping away from me once the weight of my interest becomes too great? This is the question, and my theory lately has been that adherence to the principle of air thresh is the answer; adhering to the maximum sustainable workload guards against burnout and facilitates relentless forward progress. Of course, sustaining that workload also requires that I become more selective with my obsessions, and that is why, over the course of the past year or two, I have attempted to streamline my many interests into one unified concept: Edmund Milly, the singer who runs.

My ruling passions complement each other in their elementary human natures. Who doesn’t sing (even if it is in the shower), and who doesn’t run (even if it's just to catch the bus)? In order to perform at a high level in either activity, however, one must be a master of one’s own body, and particularly of one’s own breath. Of course, a singer is also by necessity a musician, a linguist, and a literary critic, so my subsidiary passions still have their places, but I can’t allow them free rein anymore. The same is true of my other athletic interests: strength training, cycling, and swimming can be useful to a runner, but in excess they can also be distracting. (And athletics can be useful to a professional singer, but in excess they also detract from that thing you do.) My nickname in the voxtet was “Renaissance Vox” because of this sometimes self-defeating, sometimes fruitful tendency I have for my attention to be pulled in many different directions. It is an apt nickname, but I have come to realize that if I’m going to embrace that identity, I need to be Renaissance Vox in a way that doesn’t interfere with the successful focusing of my energies.


Not all of my posts on this blog are going to be so long, so wordy, or so serious, but I daresay some of them will. I often get excited about very inconsequential and frivolous minutiae, things like a specific pair of running shoes, a race, a concert, or an awesome Bach aria. I guess gushing about such things is OK in a runner’s blog or an early music singer’s blog, and I’ll occasionally do that. But I also want this blog to be a record of objective, practical advice I’ve received or compiled on improving as a runner or a singer. This way, my writing can be useful to myself and maybe even to others, rather than just being an exercise in navel-gazing. I’d like to stop being so introverted and to start acting like the active member of the musical and running communities that I am, so yeah, comments are most welcome. Let’s go!

Air Thresh: Prologue by Edmund Milly

So. I ran across Canada. Like, from my apartment in Montreal to the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver. I went solo, pushing my camping gear and supplies in a jogging stroller and averaging 30 miles a day. This is a story I’ve already told, but, since this is me starting my new blog about my life as a singer who runs, and it is to be in many ways the chronicle of my life after this significant and unusual event, I feel that you ought to know.

When I came back from that journey, I took my longest ever break from running, a solid 18 months. Perhaps a few weeks without running were necessary to give my body time to recover, but I believe that the extremely prolonged break with which I ended up was mostly the product of psychological need. I wasn’t able to process it at the time, but my entire relationship with running could never be the same after running 3100 miles in one summer. Certain moments on the run stick out in my memory as turning points, the times when my tears turned into laughter and my running made me feel alive - cresting a hill near Montreal River, powering through pouring rain in a Northern Ontario thunderstorm, feeling pushed forward by some external force the day I covered 56 miles from Wawa to White River. I was changed by these events. Parts of me were burnt away, and other parts were refined.

The changes might be summed up as a series of contrasts. I used to run in fits and starts, alternating periods of heavy mileage with periods of almost total negligence; now I run seven days a week, often the same amount each day. I used to think I was hardcore; now I realize I’m pretty amateur, but I pass no judgment on myself for that, I just slowly, steadily work towards running faster and longer. I used to run because I was depressed; now I run because it allows me to express my inner harmony. I used to run to confront pain; now when I run, I find pleasure. I used to run because it was part of my personality; now I run to purge myself of personality. I used to listen to music on the run; now I find it distracts me from my own breath. I used to run to finish; now I run to win. I used to run because it made me feel human; now I run to leave the weight of my humanity behind. I run because I’m an animal.

And yet, my running has also become more disciplined and calculated. If I cross my aerobic threshold, I do so with full awareness and forethought. My breathing has become deeper and more mindful even as I consciously subjugate its rhythm to my footfalls. My cadence is a steady 180 bpm: 4 footfalls to the inhalation and 4 to the exhalation on an easy day, 3-3 when approaching aerobic threshold, 2-2 in a race. Exercise physiology and books have been helpful to me - when I read about running, I no longer seek narrative so much as information, research.

And so, where my previous blog was primarily concerned with narrative, this one will perhaps place more emphasis on research - my own and others'. I’m often going to talk about various experiments with nutrition, training, shoes, lifestyle, etc. as they pertain to performance in running and singing - either/or, not usually both at once. Other times I’ll talk about books or people that I’ve found interesting or that have impacted the way I practice running and singing.

But what does "air thresh" mean? And what crossover can there be between maximizing one's performance as a singer and as a runner? Without an outlet for my writing since Ascending and Descending, I've been building up a backlog of things I need to talk about, and I'm excited to get into these questions and more in this space. So stay tuned!