CFT: Need More Speed? Add Some Negativity

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- Here's one I hear far too often..."I start out OK, but then I die at the end." Particularly common among USAF PT testers, those experiencing this phenomenon are often bewildered about the cause. The good news is, for the vast majority of cases, there is an easy fix. Provided of course, you subscribe to the "Theory of Negativity." For the physicists out there, hang with me on this!

In a short-duration, high-intensity event (like the PT test!), timing and pacing play a HUGE part in your performance. It's hard enough to squeeze in workouts, take care of your diet, manage hydration, stress, sleep and all the other factors that influence your final score. What you simply cannot afford is to blow all your hard work with suboptimal execution.

Even the best-prepared athlete will suffer mightily if they bust the plan on game day. Fortunately, with a little practice and some science on your side, you can make the most of your preparation and significantly boost your score. On a 1.5 mile run, you can shave as much as 30 seconds off your time, and it has nothing to do with fitness. It's all in the execution.

Although we refer to the 1.5 mile run as an "aerobic test," it's far too short to absorb pacing errors. Think about it: the average time is under 15 minutes, and we usually run the test on a quarter mile track. Just a few seconds a lap can take a big bite out of your score. Most "testers" start off behind the power curve by ignoring advice about adequate pre-test rest, warm up and hydration. But even if you've cleared these obstacles, the biggest trap lies ahead. Where do you really lose points? On the first lap.

Trained athletes know one aspect of their fitness level very well: if you really want to sound sophisticated, talk about your "lactate threshold" (sometimes called the "anaerobic threshold"). This measure identifies the breakpoint in your muscle activity, and marks a shift from "aerobic" to "anaerobic" exercise.

It's not too far off to think of the 1.5 mile run as an "aerobic" event, but in reality, the short duration and high intensity commonly seen on this test puts the results squarely in the "anaerobic" category. So, which is it? Standard answer: it depends.

If you are producing lactic acid faster than you can get it out of your muscles, you are above the "lactate threshold" and are operating on the anaerobic side of the line. And as that lactic acid accumulates, muscle performance decreases. You "feel" this as a "burning" sensation in your muscles. On a PT test, this is a disaster. Cross that line too soon, you are losing points, and the run is just too short to get them back.

Here's how it happens: you start the run "feeling good" and run at what seems like a good pace, only to start "feeling the burn" somewhere during the second lap (let's assume you are on a six lap course). You're done. You just don't know it yet. You have flooded your muscles with lactic acid, and no matter how hard you "push it," you will start to slow down.

I've heard the claim "I can just gut it out the last two laps" over and over, but what most people don't realize is that while your ability to tolerate discomfort is important, it doesn't make your muscles work any better. You can drive your "effort" higher, thinking you can "push through" the pain, but along the way your pace will drop off. That's when your score drops like a rock. You cross the line exhausted, gasping, in pain and wondering what happened. Simply, you started too fast.

Track-trained runners use a term called "negative splits" to avoid this trap. It's totally counter-intuitive, but absolutely essential for a short, high-intensity run like the 1.5 mile test. In a six-lap event, it's very easy to plan but exceedingly hard to execute. It's just so difficult to hold back on the first couple laps. You think you are just leaving seconds on the track. In reality, you are keeping them in the bank.

"Negative splits" means that your lap time actually decreases on every lap (in track lingo, a "split" is the time elapsed on each lap.) Your first lap is the slowest, and you gradually increase speed on each successive lap. Let's say you are shooting for "sub 12:00" on this run. That's two minutes per lap, right? That will only work if you can hold that pace and run below your lactate threshold. If a two-minute pace gets you into the anaerobic mode, you'll see the lap times actually increase, and by the fourth lap, you'll see 2:10 or worse. Your "sub 12:00" goal is out the window.

Need proof? See the heart rate and speed trace from a training run I did last week. This is a little extreme, but I wanted to exaggerate the lactic effect so you can see it in the data. On this run, I did all the prep (rest, warm ups, stretching, hydration), so this is all execution.

Look at the first lap time: a smokin' 1:26 (that's a pace of close to a 5:30 mile)! If I was shooting for a "sub 12:00" I just put nearly 30 seconds in the bank, right? Sorry! Needless to say (and obvious in the heart rate trace!), I was already at full tilt before the lap was half over. That's totally unsustainable. You can sustain the max heart rate, but the pace will drop off.

Just to prove a point, I walked a full lap next to rest up. Now, look at the next lap. Even after a full lap "recovery walk" the next split was over 1:40. And that one was at max heart rate as well. Predictably, things only got worse. I couldn't hold two minutes on the third lap, again even after a full lap of recovery.

I didn't take this any farther, but you can imagine on a six-lap event with three more laps to go, there's no way I had enough "pad" built up in the first two laps to prevent busting the 12:00 goal.

But here's a textbook execution the week prior (same regimen, similar conditions, same fitness level.) Look at that! I hit the first lap right at 2:05, decreased the lap time on every lap, and with no recovery at all, I cranked out a 1:40 on the last lap, for an easy "sub 12:00" overall. In a negative splits execution, that first lap is critical.

Note I didn't hit max heart rate until somewhere in the middle of lap three (recall that on the first run, I was at max heart rate before the end of the first lap.) Obviously, you don't want to build too big a deficit, but erring on the slow side is actually recoverable. 2:10 might be too much, but you really won't know unless you work through a few "schedules" to see when and where your threshold becomes a factor. That means PRACTICE!

The prescription is pretty simple. To start out, target a finishing time, divide by six to determine the base lap time. Add a few seconds to laps one and two, try to hold the base time on three and four, and make up the "lost time" on laps five and six.

Properly executed, it will seem agonizingly slow on the first lap. But you MUST remain below your lactate threshold on the first two laps. You will cross this point on the next two laps, but the accumulation rate will be too slow to significantly affect muscle performance.

Make no mistake, this is a muscle test...every step proves "F=Ma" (physicists, are you still with me?) and if "F" goes down, you are losing points. After a few experiments, you'll find a good schedule.

The next step is to train with it. Hitting those lap targets accurately will take practice. You can REALLY help yourself if you pick up a heart rate monitor, and even better, one that displays your pace (you can find GPS-based sets for under $150 now).

When I run the PT test, I check the heart rate and pace several times a lap. I've found I can nail the schedule to within a couple seconds per lap very reliably. And the big benefit comes in the last two laps. You'll actually feel strong, in control, and ready to "attack."

On the "sub 12:00" goal, a 1:50 final lap is not unreasonable. And yes, your last lap will be your fastest; probably your fastest ever! Try this on your next run, and you too will believe in Negativity.

It will take a few attempts to nail this down, so don't wait until your actual test to sort this out, and you need to run these "trials" well-rested. Mondays typically work well. If you don't have time to refine the schedule (i.e., your test is next week!) then you can use a target heart rate plan instead (run the first two laps at 80 percent max heart rate and accelerate from there.)

But make no mistake, no (successful) professional runner violates the negative split principle. 1.5 miles, 5K, 10K - the same theory applies. It's all a matter of negativity. Just ask any accomplished runner; you can't win the race on the first lap, but you can certainly lose it.

Now you know the "secret." You will put points on the board with this technique and get the best bang for your training buck on test day.