Copying Champion Workouts

Recently a high school student sent me his weekly training regime. It contained a lot of long daily runs between 10 and 25km. After 2 years of running he was not managing to compete with the rest of his age group. His coach told him he was building a base, but after 2 years of building, he felt the structure should be sturdy enough to try something different. He also included a training session by a top champion runner and asked if this was the sort of training he should be doing more of.

Around 10 days before his 10km world championship win, Kenenisa Bekele reportedly ran the following workout: 8 x [400m, 200m] 90s rest between each. The 400m runs were run in 52-54s and the 200m runs were run in 24-25s.

Two years of simply going out for a long run is not a good recipe for success. However attempting one such single track workout also means very little. The important aspect is how you get to run similar type workouts. Running 24sec for 200m means an athlete requires speed. The 400m reps in 52-54s means superior speed endurance. That allows an athlete to maintain speed over longer distances. The number of reps (8) means the ability to handle high volumes of work. That means great aerobic endurance, allowing short recovery between reps (90sec). That particular session would also generate large amounts of lactate needing to be cleared so that the specific paces and volume could be maintained. That means previous workouts at similar effort with short recoveries. The workout was 10 days out from a World Championship, therefore we could assume that Bekele was able to recover and adapt from the session. Finally, the workout was reportedly completed at 2300m altitude. This assumes he was used to training at that height.

Therefore to run the same sort of workout you need speed, speed endurance, superior aerobic ability and lactate clearance, ability to recover during and after the session and be accustomed to running at altitude.

How does an athlete get fit enough to complete such a session? One possible solution is to run something similar with reduced speed and volumes and then slowly progress towards the faster, longer workout. As an example start with 5 reps at 68sec and 32sec and then gradually increase volume and speed. The problem with this approach is that further along the line, the progression will plateau, especially if an athlete has disregarded the aerobic base or the speed. For example an athlete will not be able to run 55s for 400m if their best 200m time is only 27s. Being able to maintain 8 sets will not be possible if the athlete is not comfortable running 16-20km in times well under 3m10s per km pace.

Therefore instead of copying champion workouts, athletes should concentrate on building and maximizing all of the above components. That will mean a less likelihood of hitting a plateau due to limitations in speed, endurance or recovery. Quite often athletes tell me that all their long mileage is building an endurance base. However you have to build each component to later maximize your performance. That means focusing on speed, reps with short recoveries to get your body used to lactate clearance and longer aerobic runs.

For high school runners, that means focusing on biomechanics by doing lots of short sprint reps at speed to optimize stride patterns. Learning how to sprint teaches the body to recruit the fast twitch muscles. Then, as the body develops and bones, ligaments and tendons grow stronger, more stress can be added by gradually increasing volume. The final high end aerobic system takes the longest to develop and this is achieved over a number of years with gradual increases in longer runs along with the pace of those runs. All the above needs sufficient recovery and the whole development system should hopefully help develop mental toughness, the ability to adapt and recover from the incrementally increasing volumes of hard work.

Developing a base is not just long runs, it is focusing on each component to lay a foundation. Once those components are developed, you can start putting them together. Therefore when you read about some great athlete and their amazing training session, don’t just copy their end product. Try to work through all the components and then try to map out your own path to be able to complete the same sort of workout in the future.