I'll Consider Myself Educated

A very successful training and racing stint over the last year points out I have got a few things right. By now I should know at least a little bit about running. With a degree in the topic, work experience in various coaching and training roles plus a good number of years of competing in endurance sports (mainly running), then you would hope I would be on track by now. Using the back drop of my recent marathon training, I present a kind of summary on the important elements of run training.

Science is only an attempt to explain:

Just because something is scientific or involves formulae, doesn't mean it will work. There are plenty of training packages or diet advice being marketed as science based. Using a one or just a few numbers to define training intensity, load or recovery is too simplistic to be used all the time. How can you put into a number the elements of sleep quality, toll of work, family responsibilities, recovery requirements of reducing interval rest periods from 2min down to 1min, the impact of running on concrete versus grass and all the various elements that make up life, racing and training. Yes, there are times when simplifying things down to a few numbers works well, just not always.
Heart rate or pace zones based on formulae make many assumptions. So many, there is a good chance these zones won't work well. My take on this is we can look at the zones, check the science they are based on and use them to provide a starting point. A template from which to work from. Then see how things evolve and put in the art of training. Make the changes that will work for you. For example, the MAF heart rate guidelines worked well for me at the very start of my training, when I was rebuilding my aerobic base capabilities. Beyond that it became irrelevant, and following those original guidelines would have held me back.

Smart Training doesn't mean easy and low volume:

The catch-cry coming from those caught up in the marketing of personal fitness is we need to train smart not hard. Don't overtrain, you must recover, run your best marathon off only 3 days a week....

It just doesn't add up.

Now, you need to be smart about your training. A smart training plan makes the most of your abilities, limiters, time and goals. It should include some hard training, after all, what are you recovering from if you're not training hard? It should include a descent training volume (and this varies from person to person). It is stimulating the adaptive responses required to reach your performance goals. This usually involves a good base of volume, with plenty of varied and fast running including sustained sessions that push your endurance envelope. It is rare of the top in the sport to do so with little volume or not hard sessions. Check out Train A Lot But Train Smart for further insight. Check out the last paragraph for a perfect summary.

Know your limiters and push them:

There are so many elements that limit how we can train. You should know what these are and either work around them, or work at pushing those limits further out in order to improve.

One of my limiters is rotating shift work, changing sleep patterns and unpredictable nature of when a shift will finish. The work around for this to have a hierarchy of training sessions, and work my way down the list as my weeks pan out. That way I include the most important sessions often, get to skip the nice to have if needed.

Another issue is I have a susceptibility to problems with my lower legs muscles and associated connective tissue. These are related to my foot structure, biomechanics and possibility of thick fascia surrounding the lower leg muscle compartments. To push this limiter I need to work on a very gradual conditioning program. This involves specific remedial flexibility and dynamic strength exercises, appropriate use of hills, plyometrics and fast running in small, but progressive doses.

To run fast, you need to run fast:

It's not neurosurgery. Initially, a whole lot of slow running will lead to faster racing. There is a point where this will get you only so far. Once beyond that point, you need to train to run faster, by actually running faster.

Fast running places different loading on the body:

More impact yes. Therefore more injury risk. So a bit of fast running, that progresses to more fast running is the way to go, while working at keeping away injury. (Reference, smart training, limiters and run fast). Also muscle recruitment is different. Of particular note for myself I place a much higher load on my posterior muscles (glutes, hamstrings, calves, lower back) when running faster than 4:20/km when compared to around 5:00/km. It would be risky to not train for these changes, and hope the relatively under trained muscles were up to the task on race day.

High intensity training is useless without the infrastructure in place:

All that talk about faster running might have you think I am canning the low end stuff. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the vast majority of running should be below the anaerobic threshold. This is the work that develops the capillary and mitochondrial density required, the connective tissue tolerance, enhanced substrate utilisation and improved neuromuscular recruitment patterns. Basically the comfortable running develops most of what we need. More of this great stuff, and the better we can recover and absorb the high end stuff.

Consistency... consistency... consistency:

...are the three most important words when talking about training.

It is part of your life, not your whole life:

These words were written by Bill Daveron in his article on how to train for Ironman triathlon. I think it applies to every sport. Let other elements in your life slip, and it will come back to bite you hard.

Details are important, but don't worry about them:

The details might be what heart rate you reached in the 5th interval, whether you ran 31 or 33km, what was the temperature, was a tempo or threshold run, should the intervals be 200 or 300m or anything else. At times these are important. In the overall scheme of a training program details are just that. Reference back to my comments about ensuring the infrastructure is in place. If the framework isn't in place, if the limiters aren't being addressed, if life isn't balanced and if you aren't being consistent, then you can't expect to get the most out of yourself. If these things are in place, then the details can always vary, then are plenty of different ways to train well. You have to find what works for you. Check out Running 101 for a nice take on doing this (even if the bias for triathlon running).

Nothing concrete:

This ramble may not have presented anything concrete. No hard and fast rules, but some concepts that can be adapted and varied to suit the situation. These are just some of the thoughts that stream through my head while I am out running. Often I need to put them in writing to make a bit more sense of them.


  1. Thanks Jason. 'Train a lot, but train smart' was an excellent piece. It shows that although I consider myself educated too, there's always something new (or some new detail) that makes the study of running always interesting.

    It's not rocket science, but there is science in running (and art). I sometimes think it's the 'art' part that's most important in maximising the results for any individual.

  2. Thought provoking as always Jason. Nice post.


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