What was the secret? They wanted to know, in a thousand different ways they wanted to know THE SECRET. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottom of his running shoes. - John L. Parker

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The RunSwanson Guide to Training


Ok, so I’ve been terrible about blogging recently (due to injury), but I’m finally back running again now.  I decided to change things up a little and write a post about my philosophy on training.  I've actually been meaning to write this for a while and I realize that it might be a little late as most people are firmly entrenched in their training plans for spring races, but hopefully you can take away something from this post that you can use for future training.

Let me start by saying that this post is all about workouts.  For many runners, a typical week might have 2-3 workouts, 3-4 days of easy miles, and 1-2 days of rest/cross training.  The most important days are workout days.  The purpose of this post is to familiarize you with the kinds of workouts used by distance runners and what each aims to accomplish.  I'll conclude with a few thoughts about incorporating workouts in your training plan.  I've put them into four groups here starting with the highest intensity/lowest volume and going to lowest intensity/highest volume (volume = the distance of the workout, intensity = how fast you are running):

Group 1: Speedwork 

I think this is the most misunderstood type of workout.  What most people call speedwork I would actually put in the next group.  What I consider true speed workouts are very low volume and maximum intensity and are designed to improve your maximum speed.  Examples would be very short sprints (100m or less) or short hill sprints (10-15 sec) with long recoveries.  The purpose is to be able to go full sprint for every rep.  Generally, these types of workouts tend to be ignored by distance runners.  The thought is that you spend little or no time at maximum speed in a race so what’s the point of improving it?  Well, I think that these types of workouts provide an excellent opportunity to correct mechanical deficiencies.  Most people who run lots of miles at a relatively easy pace will eventually develop a reasonably efficient stride for that pace but they look like a mess when they try to sprint.  Focusing on good mechanics when running at maximum velocity will have a trickle down effect that will help improve your form at race pace and in lower intensity workouts.  I won’t get into the details about good form here, but essentially you want to think tall, relaxed, and smooth when you run. 

Now for someone who is not focusing on the 100m dash, you probably do not need to make speedwork your highest priority.  You can simply add 5x 60-100m strides at the beginning and/or end of a workout where you focus on form and gradually accelerate to maximum velocity.  In high school, we used to do these kinds of strides every day after a run.  Short hill sprints are another great way to improve speed, but that kind of session is far more demanding and should be made its own workout.

Group 2: VO2 Max

When most distance runners think of speedwork what they are really thinking about is VO2 max work.  These are usually medium length intervals (400-1600m) run at high intensity (usually around 5k pace) with short rest in between.  Most track workouts (including the ever-popular Yasso 800’s) would fall into this category.  So would most medium length hill workouts (30sec-2min reps) and fartleks.  VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body is able to deliver to its tissues.  In these types of workouts you are at an intensity where your body is delivering oxygen as fast as it can.  Subsequently, this leads to improvements in your body’s ability to transport oxygen.

As I stated before, most runners confuse VO2 max with speed.  You will often see runners who excel at marathon and half-marathon distances but struggle with short distances such as 5k.  They usually attribute this to a lack of speed but the real issue is a lack of VO2 max.  They are used to running lower intensities where oxygen demands are lower.  When they run at higher intensities where their muscles demand more oxygen, their body is unable to keep up.  The result is oxygen deficiency which leads to rapid lactic acid build up (lactic acid will be discussed in the next section) which leads to fatigue, which leads to slowing down.

The best way to increase your VO2 max is through moderate length high intensity intervals with short rest.  Popular workouts include 8-12x 400m with 200m jog recovery, 6-8x 800m with 400m jog recovery and 3-4x1600m with 600m jog recovery.  Hill reps of 30sec to 2min would also be great VO2 work, as would fartlek workouts with interval lengths of 1-5min (fartleks are similar to interval workouts except you run for a prescribed time instead of distance, for example 5x 2 min hard, 1 min easy).

Group 3: Lactate Threshold
           
This group is basically your tempo runs, workouts where you run at a moderately fast pace (usually somewhere between 10k and marathon pace) for a fairly long time (usually between 20min and 1hr).  Simply defined, lactate threshold is the pace at which your body is in essentially a “lactate neutral” state.  Basically, you are getting rid of lactic acid at the same rate you are producing it.  Lactic acid is a product of anaerobic respiration, which is when your body burns fuel without oxygen.  Lactic acid builds up in the muscle tissue and gives you the fatigued or sore feeling.  Your body is able to get rid of lactic acid but it can only do it so fast.  That is where lactate threshold workouts come in.  In this type of workout you run just fast enough that your body is able to remove the lactic acid as quickly as it is being produced.  Essentially, you are training your body to get good at removing lactic acid.  As your body gets better at removing lactic acid you will be able to run faster without having lactic acid buildup.  This is critical for longer races where lactic acid buildup can wreck your pace. 

The most common type of lactate threshold workout is the tempo run.  To start, run at a pace that you feel you could maintain for no more than one hour (this is probably somewhere between 10k and half marathon pace) and run at this pace for 20 minutes.  Gradually, work up the distance of the run as you progress.  Remember that a tempo run is not a time trial.  You are not racing!  If the pace starts getting too easy you can increase it but the focus should be on maintaining the pace for longer, not making it faster.  If you make it too fast you will be going above lactate threshold and you will wipe yourself out.

Group 4: Long Run

The staple of many a marathon plan, there is a lot of debate on exactly how long a long run should be.  I’ve heard that it should never be more than 25% of weekly mileage but I’ve also seen plans where the long run is as much as 40% of weekly mileage.  One thing is for certain though, it should be longer than your normal run (obviously) and you should build it up slowly.  The pace should not be too fast, conversational pace is fine.    The long run is also not specific to just marathoners.  I believe that even 5k’ers can benefit from a long run between 10 and 15 miles.  Perhaps the biggest benefit of the long run is the mental toughness gained from being able to run for a long time.  This is critical in preparing for a marathon where you will be running for several hours.

There are also workouts that are sort of in between different groups.  For instance 200m repeats might be between groups one and two depending on how much rest you have.  Some people do runs called progression runs which are essentially long runs where you gradually get faster throughout the run, usually starting at easy pace and then progressing to marathon or even half marathon pace.  These would be an example of a workout between groups three and four.  Workouts that combine groups two and three are usually among the most challenging.  Just look up The Michigan or the 30-40 workout (beware: these workouts are brutal) for some examples.
           
A good training plan for an experienced runner might touch on all four groups during peak weeks.  Beginning runners would probably do best with either a VO2 max workout or lactate threshold workout each week but not both.  That being said, I’ll leave you with a few things to think about when planning your workouts:

1. Think about your strengths and weaknesses as a runner, do you excel at long distances or shorter distances?  Tailor your workouts to work on your weaknesses and you’ll be a better overall runner.  If you try a new workout and it completely kicks your butt then you're probably on the right track.

2. What race are you training for?  If you have a specific goal race then you should try to simulate your race in your workouts whenever possible.  Training for a marathon?  Consider doing tempo runs at a little faster than marathon goal pace, or maybe a long run where you throw in a few miles at marathon goal pace.  How about a 5k?  Maybe do some track intervals at 5k goal pace.  Start with 400’s and then as you get comfortable with the pace you can increase the length of the intervals and/or shorten the rest.

3. This might be the most important one: be confident and believe in what you are doing.  After running on a team for 6 years in high school and middle school I can honestly say that one of the biggest factors that influences how a runner improves is the attitude they take toward their training.  The people who believe that what they are doing is going to help them and get excited for their training are the ones who see huge improvement, but the ones that just go through the motions, not so much.  If you have confidence in your training you will run times that you might not have believed were possible.

And one last thing: have fun with it!  Your training is yours to do with as you please. Maybe it’s the scientist in me but one of my favorite parts of running is trying out new workouts and experimenting to find out what works and what doesn’t.  So don’t be afraid to try something new; it might be just the thing you need to achieve a breakthrough in your race and get a PR.

If you have any thoughts on training feel free to leave a comment!

Happy Running!

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