COLUMN: Pushing one’s limits is necessary for runners

Every senior in college has a few of those moments when they suddenly realize that things that happened in high school happened a very long time ago. I have a well-worn shirt from my glory days on the high school cross country team that is more than five years old. I’m not sure if I should be disgusted at myself for keeping it or proud of myself for fitting into it. This week, I decided to try to fit in another relic of high school athletics — a speed workout.

I hate speed workouts. This type of exercise usually involves repeating short distance sprints with a quick break in between. The idea is to get your legs acclimated to going faster so that eventually, you won’t even need the breaks in between and you’ll be able to run at that sprinting pace for longer spans.

My coaches would chastise me for taking my intervals easy, but I really only have two speeds: jogging and running. Whether it’s an 800m interval (two laps around the track) or a 5K, my running doesn’t get much faster than that. I know it could if I pushed myself to increase the number of strides per minute or picked up my knees more or pushed off my toes more, but those techniques are difficult for me to sustain even for short distances.

I get to the finish line of races just fine at my normal running pace, and I don’t feel so awful along the way. Especially after training for a full marathon, achieving the mileage seems like a much bigger milestone than finishing at a certain time.

Since college started, I have also been in denial that I run noticeably slower, so doing a disappointing speed workout would make it hard to continue living in my ignorant bliss.

I make plenty of excuses for myself when my long runs clock in slow: I didn’t get much sleep last night, I didn’t drink enough water before I started and I had to wait at stoplights. The truth is I don’t push myself to run harder, and my legs don’t have the muscle memory to run seven-minute miles anymore.

One of my other excuses is that I’ve already peaked. My cross country coach told me in high school that girls peak earlier than boys in running. He said that he’s seen girls peak freshman or sophomore year, while boys will often run their best in junior or senior year.

That rang true for me, but it might not be related to physiology so much as it is related to the demands of high school. By junior year of high school, I was swamped with extracurricular activities, demanding AP classes and my part-time job at the ice skating rink. By the time practice started at 3:30 p.m., I was pretty much already spent.

While it may have been an accurate observation of high school track athletes, all of the research I’ve seen also disproves this theory. Top track athletes in the Olympics are in their mid-20s. Elite marathon runners are even older. And in fact, the peak age for male runners is lower than female runners. As a senior in college, it’s nice to know I haven’t peaked… yet.

But I also probably won’t peak in my mid-20s if I keep running leisurely the way I do.

So on a Wednesday night, my running buddy Jenny and I hit the track for four 800m repeats with a 200m jog in between. The goal was to complete every single interval in around the same time, within 10 seconds of each other.

The first one always feels good; it’s exhilarating to push your body to go that fast. From there, it starts going downhill (and not in a fast sprinting downhill sort of way). The second one clocks in just a few seconds slower and my lungs are on fire. The third one is the worst. It feels like the recovery jog was no recovery at all. Every muscle is exhausted, even though I turn in my slowest time that is officially 10 seconds slower than the first one.

I rally for the last one and for a split second, I realize this pace isn’t awful. I could get used to this. And perhaps, this old high school workout will be part of my weekly routine.

Meghan Coyle is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. She is also the online managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Chasing Pavements,” runs Tuesdays.