Penguin Chronicles: The 60/40 Rule

Getting older doesn't mean you have to stop running altogether. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

When you just can’t go as fast as you used to.

Joe Henderson is one of the most prolific writers about running that there has ever been. If there’s been anyone, or anything, that has to do with running, Joe has written about it.

Joe told me once that in his experience, 40 minutes was the perfect amount of time for a running workout. Tempo run: 40 minutes. Track workout: 40 minutes. Recovery run: 40 minutes.

Knowing Joe, I figured there was some basic science behind the magic of 40 minutes. I never asked him, and I’m not sure I would have understood even if he had explained it to me. I took him at his word: 40 minutes.

Keep in mind that in his prime, Joe was a pretty good runner. He was faster than I ever was or ever hoped to be. He could, I’m quite sure, get in a 6-mile run in those 40 minutes. He could also do 6 x 1 mile repeats. Or 12 x 800s. You get the idea. For Joe, a lot of good things could happen in 40 minutes.

One summer, while we were both clinicians at our Runner’s World colleague Jeff Galloway’s running camp at Lake Tahoe, Joe took off to do his 40-minute workout and I took off to do mine. I got back in almost exactly 40 minutes, but Joe was nowhere to be found.

I waited, a little concerned, for Joe to come back. Sure enough, after about an hour, Joe came running up.

“What happened, Joe?” I asked. “I thought you were doing your 40-minute workout.”

“I did” he replied with a smile. “It’s just these days my 40-minute runs take me 60 minutes.”

That’s when I realized the pure brilliance of a seasoned runner like Joe. He had workouts that he liked to do. He had workouts that made him feel good. He had workouts that, while they didn’t make him faster anymore, allowed him to get slower more gradually.

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Too often I talk to runners who tell me that they “used to be” fast. They’ll relay with pride their personal bests at every distance. Sooner or later though, the smile on their faces begins to fail as they start talking about their more recent runs and races. They’re disappointed at the inevitable toll that age has taken on their times.

That’s usually when I tell them the story of Joe Henderson and his 60/40 rule. Almost without exception they get the point.

I love living an active life. When it started, my only goal was to get faster. Then, my goal was to go farther. Eventually, like nearly every runner I’ve ever known, my goal was to go faster, farther.

It worked for a long time. Even I got faster when that was my focus. For nearly 10 years I could count on year-over-year improvement. Then—silently and without warning—it stopped happening. The route that had always taken 40 minutes now took 42. Then 45. And eventually I was standing in Joe Henderson’s shoes. My 40-minute workout took 60 minutes.

Sooner or later, we’re all faced with the choice of what kind of runner we want to be when getting faster or running farther is no longer a possibility. We can quit and remember the glory years. We can sit around telling stories about the great races and fast times.

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Or, we can be like Joe. We can accept with grace that while our fastest times may be behind us, our best times may be yet to come. I’ve chosen to be like Joe even though, to be honest, my 40-minute runs can sometimes take well over an hour.

I wrote a number of years ago that the only thing you had to do in order to call yourself a runner was run. It was that simple. I know now that being a runner is also a state of mind and a way of encountering our world.

Here’s to Joe and to the magic of the 40-minute workout—no matter how long it takes.

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About The Author: 

John Bingham, aka The Penguin, shares his running tales and experiences every month in Competitor Magazine. Have a story of your own to share or a topic you’d like The Penguin to consider? E-mail him at thepenguin@johnbingham.com.

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