James Chu

Full transcript of interview with James Chu (March 17, 2013):


C259: James, welcome to the cloud.

James: Hi guys, thanks for having me.

C259: The name of the show is Cloud259, there’s a reason for that, Gregg and I want to get under three hours in the marathon. I’ve had a terrible time with my splits, Gregg has been a little more successful. How can you get somebody like me who does a 10-minute positive split to get sub-3?

James: In training you really have to practice race pace. You’re running a 26.2-mile race, a common way to train for that is to make your long run a workout. I think we’re seeing that more recently than you have in the past. I don’t know how you guys are training, but I think it’s been common to keep increasing distance of your long run. I’ve recently read the Italian Coach Renato Canova, and he believes that’s the incorrect method of training for a marathon, that instead you should be working on your race pace and trying to extend how long you can hold that pace for. I subscribe to that, I believe that you should do progression runs and lactate threshold workouts. These workouts end up being fairly long workouts.

C259: So rather than the conventional wisdom that you should do your long runs very slow, maybe a minute and a half slower than marathon pace, you’re saying that you’ve got to hit those long runs hard.

James: Yeah, I think it’s kind of standard that you should do 12-15 miles in the middle of your long run at your marathon goal pace.

C259: Ouch.

James: So if you’re doing an 18-miler, let’s say, that could be a 2-mile warm-up, 14 miles at goal marathon pace, 2-mile cooldown. That forces you to be honest with what your goal pace is going to be. You do that workout once a week, or every other week, you’re going to have a very good idea whether that pace is correct for your marathon.

C259: I like that you mention honesty because I think that’s what trips up many marathon runners. They train so hard for this thing and they have a dream time, as we do here, and they set their target at this dream time. If they had a great day they would hit it, but if they are trying to hit it very consciously from the start it might actually decrease their chances of hitting it because they go out too hard. James, you say 12-15 miles in the middle of the run at your marathon goal pace, what is the longest pre-marathon workout that you would recommend?

James: I think the 15-mile long run at goal marathon pace. If you want to add miles to that, I would add miles to the warm-up and cooldown. It could be a 3 mile warm-up and 15 miles at goal pace, 3 mile cooldown, and you’ve got 21 miles there in the long run but it was a quality long run, you did 15 miles at goal pace. Hopefully it felt comfortable enough that you have the confidence that on race day you could do that for the extra 11.2. I’d apply that same principle if I’m training for a half marathon as well. I might do 8-10 miles at half-marathon pace. Or something slower, perhaps, it’s lactate threshold training. You’re moving quickly, but you are comfortable, you clearly have gears saved for a race situation. When you are in a race, you’ll have the extra gears and you’ll have race-day adrenaline and a taper to hopefully take you the rest of the way.

C259: For novices, explain what a lactate threshold run is and what that means in terms of the marathon.

James: You’ll hear things like tempo run and steady state and progression runs, those are lactate threshold types of workouts. They can also be tempo intervals, which are just longer intervals. Basically, I’ve read LT pace defined as the pace you could hold for one hour, so for me that could be a 15k or a 10 mile sort of race or maybe a bit longer than that, but I also think it’s a moving target, depending on how long you are doing this workout for. A 4-mile tempo run would be different from an 8-mile progression run, so the LT pace is different for those two types of workouts.

C259: Basically you are trying to train your body to keep the lactic acid at bay.

James: Right, it would be the threshold between aerobic and anaerobic. In the presence of oxygen is aerobic, and the lack of oxygen is anaerobic.

C259 (Gregg): When you get to race day, how do you usually approach pacing? Do you plan for a negative split?

James: We’re mostly on the road-racing scene where there are hills involved, which is very different from a track race. I typically would negative split most distances longer than – you talked about before how 800 meters is one of the last distances where positive splitting was optimal, and everything after that even splits or negative splits seem to be optimal. Perhaps the 1500 is the inflection point where even splits is the optimal strategy. Everything beyond that I would slightly negative split. And you are negative splitting effort as much as you are by time. What I mean by that is everything feels easy at the beginning of a race. You want to get halfway to 75% through a race feeling fairly comfortable and be able to really go anaerobic and redline the last 25% of the race, and that would lead to a negative-split performance.

C259: I think that’s key. I think it’s counter-intuitive to a lot of beginning runners that it should feel easy for awhile, before it doesn’t.

James: Yeah, the longer the race the more patient you have to be.

C259 (Gregg): Do you have any insight into why the 800 is different? It just doesn’t seem obvious to me why you’d be spending more on the first lap. Maybe you know from your days running at college and running it very well.

James: My 800 PR is 1:58 high. I’m pretty sure the splits as being 27 seconds first 200 (I ran this on an indoor track), 58 seconds at 400, and 1:27/28 at 600. Each lap I was positive splitting, but if I had to do it in reverse, it would be impossible. It’s too difficult to affect the final 400 meters of that race, whether you went out slow or fast. It’s never really that slow, so if I went out in 61, that’s still not that slow, I’m not sure that I would be able to come back in 58. If that’s the case, you have to go out fast and have time in the bank, and just try to hold on to complete the race, for me it was under 2:00.

C259: I’m used to running longer races and one thing that I count on – I ran the mile at the North Brooklyn Runners meet last week – is that in the last lap I’m going to get some adrenaline. Maybe because I paced it too easy, but on the last lap I ran a lot faster than the other laps. I certainly felt great coming out of it like I had this adrenaline shot. You’re saying in an 800, you really can’t control the last 400. In an 800 meter race if you are just hanging on at the end, when do you get the big adrenaline surge in the race?

James: I’d say there is no adrenaline surge in the race. I guess that’s why you do it that way, where you’re going to end up positive splitting. You just go out so hard, the entire distance is a long sprint. I think David Rudisha now has really shown that it is a long sprint. There is definitely a strong aerobic factor to it, but it really feels like a sprint. You basically can’t go any faster in that last 200, no matter if you went out a little bit slower than usual, I just don’t think you can affect that last 200 that much.

C259: They are great races to watch, the 800. What you see happen if you follow Nick Symmonds in his races and he’s running these slightly positive splits but he looks like he’s just blowing people away in the second lap because everybody is slowing down, and everybody is frantically trying to reach the finish line so it looks like Symmonds is actually running faster in the second lap in an outdoor 800. Also, Erik Sowinski who set the American record in the 600, he mowed down Duane Solomon at the Millrose Games and he actually positive split that, he went from 23 to 25 to 26 seconds, 26 high on the last lap, and it looked like he was accelerating at the end, but actually he was just reeling in Solomon who was slowing down more.

James: Looks are kind of deceiving, right. It all depends on what your form is looking like. I think that’s the difference with the 800 and perhaps the 1000 and the 600 as well. It’s sort of similar in the 400 where you start to see people’s form break down in the last 100 or so. I don’t think you see that in longer races than the 1,000. I think people’s form tends to hold up a little better.

C259: Why do you think most people pace their races poorly? You’ve got a New York Road Runners Race with 15,000 people in it. Why do most of them run a pretty significant positive split?

James: Inexperience. You have to consider the size of the field. There are a lot of novice runners in this field. But even among experienced runners, I think it’s race-day adrenaline, not being honest about what their true fitness level is. Everyone is shooting for a goal pace, which perhaps they didn’t set correctly, and that’s why I believe in training you really have to work on race pace. I see it all the time. Even in workouts, people end up racing workouts, and you’re not supposed to race workouts. You’re supposed to get an honest read of what your race pace should be.

C259: So you should try to feel in the workout like what? I run into the problem where I think, well, in the workout, if you are not racing it, are you trying to feel like you would in the middle of a race?

James: Yeah, I’ve never heard that before, but yeah, maybe you’re trying to feel like what it would in the middle of a race.

C259: So you’re not hammering it at the end. Every quarter isn’t like the last quarter of a race.

James: Exactly. You are absolutely not doing that. If you have a good idea of what your goal pace should be, and you’re doing a workout, you focus on not running the splits faster, but making them feel more comfortable and relaxed. Until you race faster, you have to go with what your current times are. You have to be honest with what your current fitness level is, not what you hope your fitness level is going to be, until you’ve run the race and have the time to prove it.

C259: The athletes that you coach, first of all, are these athletes of various abilities? Are these serious amateurs, or is there a range?

James: There’s a range, I’m coaching a few beginners, some experienced runners. I think the experienced runners are perhaps more difficult to coach, just because they expect to improve and if they’re already well-trained, it’s very difficult to get that extra bit of improvement out of them. The beginning runners, inevitably they’re going to improve. With them you want to stress good habits and how to train because a lot them don’t know that you need recovery days, or that hard days should be really hard, easy days should be really easy. They just know one speed and that’s to run hard all the time, which doesn’t work. It usually leads to injuries and leaves you stale in the workouts and in the races. Not the way to go.

C259: Have you had success stories?

James: Yeah, it’s been very rewarding so far. I get my athletes thanking me quite often. I’m making them very happy, more happy than I am about my own races actually, when they do well.

C259: I’ve noticed there are fewer race results for you recently. Are you doing some heavy duty training?

James: I was. I was doubling several times a week. I went over 80 miles a week and I started to get a pain in my leg. It was an injury that I had before but I never had it diagnosed. This time I did, I went to the doctor, had an x-ray, and it was a stress reaction. I was out for four weeks, and am slowly building back up now.

C259: Well, I hope to see you at the 5th Avenue Mile. We had a great interview last episode with Uli Flume (I’m sure I butchered his name yet again). At any rate, he’ll be in that race, I think. He’s another guy who has walloped me in that race before, you’ve certainly walloped me, but I’ll be gunning for both of you. You posted 4:37 in the 5th Avenue Mile, right?

James: Yeah, and my college PR is 4:27. I’m getting there. I’m getting there…

C259: Interesting that you are chasing your college PR. I’m chasing my high school PR. Now do you think you’re going to get there? Are you going to get down to 4:27?

James: Well, it helps to run on a slightly downhill course that’s also straight. If I’m going to do it, it’s going to have to be there.

C259 (Gregg): How do you approach the mile since we’re talking about paces. The 5th Avenue Mile has that hill, is it the second quarter mile it has the uphill?

James: Yeah, it’s interesting because we are talking about positive splitting and negative splitting. I think that from the mile to 5k, you actually want to go out fast, perhaps in that first quarter, and then settle into a slower pace. So in that first quarter of a race you might be faster than goal pace, and then the middle half of the race you might be at goal pace or slightly slower, and the last quarter you give it all you got.

C259 (Gregg): Is that to shock your body into going anaerobic? What is the science behind that?

James: I think because the beginning of a race is so easy, and it’s still a pretty short distance, a mile to 5k. You can’t be too far behind the pace early on. Especially since at the beginning of a race you are completely fresh, so you’ve got to get out a little quicker, and from there you back off and settle in to pace. Most people running a mile will run a good hard first quarter, and then settle in to the second and third laps, and the fourth lap they’ll kick. I don’t know if you’ve done that before?

C259: Yeah, it’s very interesting you say that. From my experience that’s how I’ve done it, I’ve never really thought about it. People fear those second and third laps, they are known to be very difficult, but if you think of it as settling in, maybe you have the expectation that if you’re not redlining those laps, it would make more sense.

James:  You are saving energy for that last lap, right?

C259: Yep, storing up for that big old kick.

James: Yep.

C259: Well James, thanks so much for your comments on pacing. I’m going to try working up to your 15 miles at goal pace. We’ll see if that gets me under three. I’m sure I’ll have to do other things in training. Before we wrap up our interview I just want you to talk to you a bit about North Brooklyn Runners. I think it’s a great club and you guys put on a fantastic meet last weekend. For those who don’t know about the club, tell us a bit about it.

James: The club is fairly new. They just celebrated their anniversary a month ago. I think they are 4 years old now or something like that. Don’t quote me on that but I guess I’m being quoted.

C259: Well, full disclosure, I was on one of the first North Brooklyn Runners runs over the bridge and back. I had already been a member of the Central Park Track Club, so I might get some shit for being part of two clubs, but it was enjoyable and I think it was four years ago.

C259 (Gregg): James we’re very worried that you’re going to lure Brenn away from us. We don’t like it when he hangs out in Williamsburg. We like him wearing orange.

James: Hey Brenn, we could use you over at NBR.

C259 (Gregg): Well, we could use you at Central Park, you know.

James: Central Park has got enough guys.

C259 (Gregg): What is it that mainly attracts you to NBR? The community feel?

James: Yeah, there’s a real community feel. We’re mostly based in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. It sort of has the old college and high school feel where we’re travelling to races together, but instead of the school bus we’re on the subway. We all show up at races together. You get big crowds showing up at workouts because we all live in the same neighborhood, pretty much. That doesn’t mean we don’t like other people from different neighborhoods to be part of the team. We have people in Manhattan, Queens, and South Brooklyn even. We have a group in Prospect Park as well. We’re not local to just Williamsburg or Greenpoint.

C259: A few things that have really impressed me about the club are the speed at which the club has grown – there were a handful of members when we ran over the bridge and back and got coffee afterwards years ago – and now there are hundreds of runners. Also the speed at which you guys have gotten up to speed. You are nipping at our heels in some races, and beating us [CPTC] in other races. Staten Island it seems like you’ve got a stranglehold on that race, for whatever reason. Also, the number of workouts. You’ve got 12 scheduled runs a week, something like that? Morning and night options.

James: Yeah, there are morning options, evening options – that’s just to fit everyone’s busy schedules. Some people can only run in the mornings, some people can only run in the evening, and also we also have runs in Prospect Park, so geographically we have different practices set up. It’s free to join the team – that’s been a huge factor in getting people to join. Once you get fast people joining, other fast people want to join, so that’s how we’ve gotten up to speed as well.

C259 (Gregg): One last question from me. When do you plan on running your first marathon? You’ve run the half. Will you be running your first marathon before or after Bernard Lagat?

James: That’s a good question, and I get a lot of pressure from just about everyone about when I’m going to run a marathon. My guess is if I run one, I won’t like it enough to run one again. It’s just such a long race. I like to race often when I’m in racing season. I prefer running several races rather than putting all my eggs into one race, so not in the near future. If I start to slow down in improvement, then maybe I’ll just move up to snag a new PR.

C259 (Gregg): We’ll keep track and maybe have you back as you’re gearing up for that in the months or years ahead. I’m sure you’ll post a great time whenever you choose to take that on. Thanks so much for joining us, it’s been a great discussion and we’d love to have you back sometime.

C259 (Brenn): WE may call you back late in the summer when we’re both in hard-care marathon training, give you some updates on long goal-paced runs and ask for more help. You gotta get us under three, man. Thanks James.

James: Thanks guys.

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