TITLE: Pace and Expectations AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 15, 2005 5:16 PM DESC: The idea of sustainable pace is more complex than just "you can't go too fast for too long". What counts as too long depends in part on expectations. ----- BODY: This isn't (just) a running post, though it starts with a running story. This morning, I did my last speed workout before the half marathon I will run in 11 days. I have not yet started back to real interval training since my marathon last October, Instead, I have been focusing on sustaining speed over longer distances. I would ordinarily have run 8 miles today at something just under 7:00/mile. With the half-marathon looming, I decided to test myself a bit and try to run 10 miles at 7:00/mile. In an ideal world, I would run that pace in my race. For my workout, I'd be slowing down a bit to target race pace but sustaining the pace for a longer stretch. It's good to train the body and mind to recognize and hold your target pace, so I was hoping to run all of my miles this morning in about the same time, between 6:50-6:54/mile. Going from 8 miles to 10 at a challenging pace may not seem like all that much, but it is a challenge. Usually, I finish my 8-mile workout pretty well spent, often having to work hard over the last three miles to keep the pace up. Where would I get the extra energy, both physical and mental, to go as fast for longer? In some ways, the physical part is the easier of the two. You can usually do more physically than you think. When a person tells me, "I can't even jog a block", I usually think they could. It might well hurt a bit, but they could do it. There muscles are more powerful than they realize. Since getting into better shape, I have often been surprised that my body could do more than I expected of it. The mental energy is another story. Even if my body can handle 10 miles at race pace, it will beginning feeling the stress much sooner. I knew that my body would be talking back to me this morning -- "Why? Why?" -- by the six or seventh mile. Being able to keep the faith and keep the pace becomes a mental challenge, answering the calls of fatigue and pain with energy found elsewhere. How did I manage? I think that the key was having a fixed and realistic target for the run. 10 miles isn't that much more than 8, so I know that my body can do it. Knowing that I only had to put together two more miles allowed my mind to adjust to the small increment before the run began. When I started to feel the workout in its seventh mile, my mind was ready... "Just a couple of more miles. Focus on the pace of individual laps. It's only two miles beyond what you usually do." Then, when I reached the 8-mile mark and my body mostly felt like stopping, I could say to myself, "Just a couple of more miles. You just did two tough ones. Will these really be any harder?" They weren't. My body could do it. I don't actually conduct this internal dialogue all that much as I run, only in the moments when my focus shifts away from the lap I'm running to the seemingly vast number of laps that remain. I can't run those laps yet; all I have is this one. I think it's a game of expectations. With reasonable expectations, the mind can help you do more than otherwise would be comfortable. An important part of reasonableness is duration--this only works well in the short term. Had I tried to run a full 13 miles this morning at race pace, my mind may have failed me. My body is still recovering from recent 5K and a 12-mile weekend run, and so it would begin to complain with increasing fervor as the miles added up. And I doubt that my spirit would have been strong enough to win the battle, because doing a 13 miles at race pace isn't reasonable for this day. But with a reasonable short-term expectation, I was able to handle crunch time with that short-term horizon in mind. I've written about sustainable pace before, including about what happens when I try to go faster than a sustainable pace for too long and how software developers might train for speed. (I've even referenced sustainable pace in the context of a Bill Murray film.) But the idea has been on mind again lately in a different way. The pace that is sustainable is closely tied to one's expectations about its endurance. This mental expectations game applies in running, but it also applies in other human endeavors, including software development. A recent thread on the XP mailing list considered the proposition that "crunch mode" doesn't work. There didn't seem to be many folks defending the side that crunch mode can work. That's because most people were thinking about sustainable pace over the long run, which is what agile folks tend to mean when they talk about pace. They do so for good reason, because the danger in software development has usually been for companies to try to overdo it, to push developers too far and too fast, with the result being a decrease in software quality and ultimately the burn-out of the developers. At least one person, though, argued that crunch mode can work. The gist of SirGilligan's claim is that a software team can go faster and still do quality work -- but only for a well-defined short term. He even used a running metaphor in defining such a crunch time: We are not 1/3 along the way, we are in the straight-a-way and heading for the finish line. How can developers win the expectations game in such a scenario? The end is clearly in sight:
Pending features are well defined. Order of feature implementation is defined. Team is excited for the chance to deliver. It is the team's choice and idea to crunch, not some manager's idea. We enter crunch mode! After we deliver everyone gets the following Friday and Monday off for a four-day weekend!
That sounds an awful lot like what a runner does when she races a marathon or half-marathon faster than she thinks otherwise possible. The pending goal is well-defined. The runner is excited to deliver. She chooses to push faster. And, after the race, you take a few days off for rest. A party, of course, is always in order! I think the great ones are able to manage their expectations in a way that allows them to do more than usual for a short while. The good news for the rest of us is that we can learn to do the same, which gives us the ability to succeed in a wider variety of circumstances. Just always keep in mind: You can't keep going faster indefinitely. -----