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The Marathon and The Sprint

By Jeff Koch on November 4, 2012.

I have two buddies that I play music with. We’re all runners. One is an ultra-marathoner, another is a marathoner, and I’m a half-marathoner. We all approach our training and races differently. While we’re all trying to maximize our abilities and finish in the quickest times possible, we have different expectations and realities about how that can happen. At 50 miles, a 7-minute mile probably isn’t too realistic. However, as a half-marathoner, my goal is to run those 13.1 miles in just about 7 minutes per mile. That is about the limits of my body at that distance. When I run shorter distances–say, a nice 10k (6.2 miles)–I can easily get under 7-minute miles.

At each of our respective distances, competing against the other 2, we’d all win. I could probably never even finish an ultra-marathon, and neither of the other two could probably find a quick enough pace to keep up with me in a half-marathon.

But if we all lined up to run a mile, I think I would win, because I’ve trained my body for quicker paces. And within my runs, I have more room for a faster kick and sprint at the end.

What does this have to do with the Spurs? For years we’ve heard about how Pop manages minutes, keeping his players fresh for the playoffs. The season is a marathon, not a sprint, as the adage goes. The most important thing is to be healthy come the playoffs. And this is all true: the regular season is a marathon (perhaps even an ultra-marathon), and there are going to be ups and downs, wins and losses, and a team should not lose sight of the finish line, not break its stride, for the sake of a game or two here or there.

But while the regular season is a marathon, the playoff is a series of short sprints. And I believe this caught up to the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals last year, as the team better trained for sprints was able to outlast and outwork our marathon-trained team.

Abandoning the metaphor, the Spurs had more depth than the Thunder, but the Thunder had a core of 4 or 5 players who were trained to play 35-40+ minutes a game. And over the course of 6 games, the detriment of that added workload wasn’t going to outweigh the benefit of being able to play your best players the majority of the game. On the other side, the Spurs were unable to have their best players on the floor for enough of the game. Duncan averaged less than 30 minutes a game in the regular season: a marathon pace. In the playoffs, his minutes increased, but they could only increase a certain amount before we started to see diminishing returns. His body wasn’t trained to play 40 minutes a game, possibly not even 35 minutes. Same with Parker, same with Ginobili. So while OKC got 44 minutes of Durant, we were lucky to eke out 38 minutes of Duncan.

I’ve often wondered if this strategy of limiting minutes in the regular season had this negative effect in the playoffs. Bodies lock in to what they are trained and conditioned to do. If a body plays 30 minutes a game for 60 games, it’s going to have a hard time suddenly having to play 38 minutes a game. There needs to be a balance between the marathon and the sprint.

It’s still very early in the season, but it seems as if Pop might be coming around to this line of thinking. Through three games, Duncan has topped 30 minutes in every game. Yes, the games have been close. But Pop has proven in the past that he is willing to take a loss to get his players more rest. Duncan has proven that he is willing to do the work and has the discipline to keep his body in peak performance. It now seems that Pop is willing to expand his minutes and keep Duncan (and Parker) trained for 30+ minutes a game.

Because in the playoffs, we’re going to need as much of Duncan as possible. And when the time comes, he’s going to have to win a sprint, not a marathon.

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