How to Train

Whether you want to run around the block or qualify for the Boston Marathon, how you train can have a dramatic effect on your performance. While running just to run will certainly make you fitter, understanding all of the training components and putting them together in a systematic training plan gives you the blueprint for success. It’s the difference between building a house by placing bricks here and there and having a blueprint laid out beforehand. As New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”

As part of my Run-Fit SpecialistTM certification, I discuss how to train smarter and more effectively to get results. Here are some of those training concepts.   

Concept #1: To run fast, runners must first spend a lot of time running slow.

Although this concept may seem counterintuitive, it is first and foremost the volume of training the runner performs that induces the biological signal for adaptation and dictates the performance capacity. And in order to accomplish a large training volume, the runner must perform most of the running at a relatively slow pace. Lots of easy, aerobic running forms the basis of any runner’s training program. That’s because aerobic running develops many physiological and biochemical traits needed for good endurance.

Initially running slow is a difficult concept for runners to understand. While speed work can improve running performance faster than running lots of slow miles, any short-term success will occur to the detriment of the long-term development and consistency of performances. The more runners attend to the qualities of aerobic metabolism, the more they will ultimately get from their subsequent speed work. 

Concept #2: Train smarter.

To train smarter, runners need to learn how to optimize their training and train at more effective levels of effort to get the best results. Although there are many paths to success when it comes to running, there are also wrong ways to train. For example, one of the biggest mistakes runners make is thinking that to run faster in races, they need to run faster in workouts. So they run their workouts faster than their current fitness level dictates. I once coached a college runner who ran around 19:00 for a 5K and she told me she wanted to be trained like a 17:30 5K runner. So I told her to run a 17:30 5K and then I’ll train her like a 17:30 5K runner. Races, which tell the runner what his or her current level of fitness is, dictate the training speeds, not the other way around. Unless the person is a sprinter, runners don’t do workouts to practice running faster. They do workouts to improve the physiological characteristics that will enable them to run faster in the future. Think of an assembly line: If you want to make more products, the better strategy is to increase the number of workers (physiological characteristics) so you have more assembly lines to do the work, rather than increase the speed at which the assembly line workers work. The goal of training is to obtain the greatest benefit while incurring the least amount of stress.

Concept #3: Easy runs must be easy. 

The single biggest mistake runners make is running too fast on their easy days. By doing so, they add unnecessary stress to their legs without any extra benefit and they won’t be able to run as much quality on their harder days. Since many of the cellular adaptations associated with aerobic training are volume-dependent, not intensity-dependent, the speed of easy runs is not as important as their duration. Slowing down the easy runs has at least three benefits: (1) it decreases the chance of injury, (2) it allows runners to get more out of their harder days because there will be less residual fatigue, and (3) it allows runners to increase their overall weekly mileage.

Concept #4: Time is more important than miles. 

Although most runners and coaches think in terms of number of miles run, the amount of time spent running is more important than the number of miles since it’s the duration of effort (time spent running) that the runner’s body senses. Endurance is improved not by running a specific distance, but by running for a specific amount of time. The duration of effort is one of the key factors that arouse the biological signal to elicit adaptations that will ultimately lead to improvements in running performance. A faster runner will cover the same amount of distance in less time than a slower runner or, to put it another way, will cover more miles in the same amount of time. For example, a runner who averages 7-minute mile pace for 40 miles per week is running the same amount of time as a runner who averages 9-minute mile pace for 31 miles per week (280 minutes per week), and therefore is experiencing the same amount of stress.  And that’s what matters—the stress. The slower runner may be running fewer miles, but the time spent running—and therefore the stimulus for adaptation—is the same. If a slower runner tries to run as much as a faster runner, the slower runner will experience more stress and therefore put himself or herself at a greater risk for injury. So, at least initially in the training program, focus on time spent running rather than on distance.

Concept #5: Fatigue is more important than the number of reps.

When designing an interval workout, the number of reps is not as important as causing fatigue. There’s no magic in doing 5 or 6 or 7 reps. The number of reps is arbitrary. Some runners may fatigue after 4 reps, some after 8. Do as many reps as it takes to cause fatigue, until the runner feels that he or she couldn’t do another rep without breaking the bank. Fatigue, as a result of the demand placed on the body, is what the body responds and adapts to. The runner should be fatigued at the end of the workout, but always feel that he could do another rep if he had to. The runner should always walk away from a workout feeling like he is in control of the workout rather than the workout controlling him. Running workouts are not done to failure. As the runner progresses, he or she should be able to handle a greater volume at a given intensity.

Concept #6: Only increase the speed of workouts when runners’ races have shown that they have achieved a higher level of fitness.

Most runners, especially younger ones, want to push the pace all the time. They want to run their workouts faster because they believe that to run faster in races, they need to run faster in workouts. However, this is backwards thinking. Races tell us what our current level of fitness is right now. Races dictate the training paces, not the other way around. To make workouts more difficult, increase the amount of time (or number of repetitions) that the runner spends at the desired pace or effort rather than having him or her run faster. When running intervals, workouts can also be made more difficult by decreasing the time of the recovery periods.

Concept #7: The goal of training is to use the least stressful stimulus to cause the desired adaptation.

Runners often perform workouts at speeds that are too fast to obtain the desired result. The problem is that they don’t know what the desired result is. To determine the correct speed, you must know the purpose of each workout. For example, say you want to improve someone’s VO2max, and she runs 800-meter reps at the speed at VO2max. If running each 800-meter rep in 3:30 elicits VO2max during the work period (which is the goal of the workout), running each rep in 3:20 will certainly also elicit VO2max. But why run each rep in 3:20 when she can run it in 3:30 and still get the same benefit? To improve VO2max, running faster than VO2max pace is not better than running at VO2max pace. All running faster does is add more fatigue to the person’s legs without any extra benefit. Running at the correct pace will more specifically target the physiological variable you’re trying to train.

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