By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/12/2007 5:40:44 PM ET 2007-04-12T21:40:44

I take my running seriously, yet I don’t consider myself a “serious runner.” My usual run is between three and five miles, three days a week — far below what marathoners probably chalk up in a day.

How do I run? Half-heartedly, at best. I keep a pretty steady pace, but I won’t win any speed contests. I do it because it feels good, which I try to remember as an older and less — let’s just say “aesthetically proportioned” — runner goes flying past.

Sure there are times when a particularly upbeat song playing on my Nike + iPod-equipped nano (the only iPod it works with) compels me to lay it on, rewarding me, when it’s over, with congratulations by Lance Armstrong on my fastest or longest run yet.

Basking in that afterglow, I return home, plug in my nano, launch iTunes to update my progress, then visit nikeplus.com to see a chart depicting my latest run, as well as those that came before it. Definitely longer or faster, or at times, both, but in the end, my overall pace remains slow.

I decided to change that, by seeking the help of a downloadable expert. Opening iTunes, I clicked over to the Music Store’s Nike + iPod workouts section to browse the selection. The concept is simple: Overlay a bunch of tracks suited for working out with the encouraging voice of a real coach. I chose “Increase Your Speed 1,” coached by multiple-marathon champ Alberto Salazar. That I recognized none of the artists included in the $14.99 workout mix worried me, but I figured the selection must have a good amount of oomph if it had any hope of fulfilling its promise.

With a post-snowstorm temperature of about 25 degrees, I slipped on a knit cap, a few upper body layers, some glove-liners for my hands, and went with soccer shorts for the lower half because I don’t own any real running pants.

My course: The boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey, which spans five miles when run end to end and back again. Though there was snow, the wide lanes reserved for peddle-powered surreys were clear. I did some light stretching, selected the workout’s playlist, and took off.

Some light-beat music started up as Alberto chimed in with a  welcome. He laid out the course: ten minutes of warm up, followed by four intervals of increasingly faster sprints with rests in between, finishing with ten minutes to cool down. I was instantly turned off because I figured the ten minutes to warm up then ten more to cool down equaled twenty minutes of slower-paced running, which would yield a slower overall pace result. Then again, perhaps those four bursts would balance things out and I’d wind up with a respectably quicker pace in the end.

Following my coach’s queues I hoofed it easily through the warm-up, and then bumped up my pace for the next four minutes to what Alberto defined as 70 percent of my maximum potential. My breathing increased up as my legs moved faster, running at a clip equal to what I considered to be a slightly speeded up version of my normal pace. So far, so good.

After four minutes Alberto told me I was doing a good job, then throttled me back to what he referred to as my “recovery pace” for the next few minutes, until it was time for the next burst: 80 percent of my potential for three minutes.

Running noticeably faster this time, I began to appreciate this interval method, holding steady until Alberto brought me back to the slower pace before the next rush. The third burst pushed me to 90% for two minutes which, Alberto noted, should be a pace which would make it difficult for me to carry on a conversation with a fellow runner. Incidentally, Alberto lets you know when you’re in the final thirty seconds of each burst.

Which, in the final burst, felt like forever as I punched it up to 100 percent to achieve a pace Alberto likened to that which finishes the race. Thirty seconds to go, and I pushed even harder, really flying, while noticing for the tenth time how the workout’s tracks — though unfamiliar — were perfectly matched to the cadence of our slow-to-start then increasingly speeded-up rapport.

Sixty seconds later, it was over, and Alberto congratulated me on a job well done — then reminded me we weren’t actually finished until I completed ten minutes of cool down, which he promised would help me recover for my next run than if I stopped cold (the way I normally do). When I finished and Alberto signed off, Lance Armstrong added his congrats on my longest run yet (half-true, because I’d run longer with a previous Nike + iPod module that I lost and had to replace with the current one).

Back home, I updated my stats via iTunes and nikeplus.com, eager to see how I scored. As I’d worried, my pace for the 4.71 mile run came in at a measly 9’ 34” per mile, as compared to my best ever, of 7’21” per mile.

Even so, thanks to Alberto, I was pleased for doing what real runners always do, but I always ignore: warming up, and cooling down. That I hit a pace of 8’31” in the final burst wasn’t so bad after all. Lesson learned? Concentrate less on higher numbers for the sake of higher numbers, and more on warming up, maintaining an increasingly quicker pace, and taking the time to cool down.

Indeed, the Nike + iPod combo and downloadable workouts are helping me be all I can be as an increasingly motivated runner. But is it all that it can be?

Not quite. Or not yet, anyway. Alberto’s voice was imperative in coaching me through the workout, but because it’s scripted, there’s no additional intelligence behind it to, for instance, chime in to tell me to speed it up if I’m dropping below my normal recovery pace, or guide me up or down to keep at the recommended 70 percent to 100 percent exertion goal for each successive sprint. Hopefully more powerful, future versions of the well-matched devices will make truly real-time monitoring and coaching possible.

It the $14.99 downloadable workout — not to mention the $29.99 price tag for the Nike + iPod kit, which does not include the nano — worth it for me, Mr. Seriously Unserious Runner?

Yes. Seriously.

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