Training Like the Professionals

Quite often I am contacted by athletes who just don’t seem to be able to get any faster. Training seems to have gone to plan but their fastest times were often a few years ago. Coaches tell me that athletes just aren’t as tough as they used to be. However given that more and more athletes are achieving better times I wonder if that statement is really true. In 1999 there were 99 sub 2hr11m marathon performances. In 2015 there were 175 sub 2hr10m performances. With better training methods, athletes should expect their times to get faster and they should have a good idea of how fast they can expect to run from their training times

Here is the training programme I was given by Jason, a 40 year old marathon runner with a best time of 2hr 48m. He had been running up to 2 marathons a year for the last 5 years. His fastest time was achieved 4 years previously. However in some of his marathon races he could not even manage to beat 3 hours. He had a catalogue of injuries and his main excuse for getting slower was put down to that fact that he was getting older. Here is the programme he followed for 3 months before a marathon.

Mon: 1hr steady pace, Tue: 1hr 30min easy pace, Wed: 1hr 15min steady pace, Thu: 2hrs easy pace, Fri: 1hr steady pace, Sat: 1hr 30min easy pace, Sun: 2hrs 30min - 3hrs easy pace. An easy pace was defined as 60% - 70% effort and a steady pace was defined as 80% effort.

The above programme is a typical 1960s training programme. Back then a good marathon time was around 2hr 20m and while the average runner would love to run that sort of time if they follow the above programme for 12 weeks they will very likely be injured at some stage of the 3 months. I see these sorts of programmes all the time and the first question I ask the athletes is “When running how do you define an 80% effort as opposed to a 70% effort?” Not many of us are that mathematically inclined and I very rarely get a good answer.

Every day, training should have a purpose. There are longer runs for endurance, days at goal pace or faster and there are rest days. What is the purpose of each of the days in the schedule above? There are no easy days to recover and let the body adapt and nothing to promote a sustained, fast marathon pace. According to exercise physiologists, a 60-minute run improves endurance 20% over a 30-minute run. However a 2 hour run is 120% better than a 1 hour run. The conclusion from this is that training runs of 1 hour and 1 hour 15 minute give little result for the time spent. The key runs, especially for marathon runners, are in the 90 minute plus zone and these should be run at the goal marathon pace. Only 3 runs in the above programme fit that goal and so the rest could be discarded. Every athlete should have at least 2 or 3 recovery days after such a run and this should only be 20 to 30 minutes. Recovery days allow the body to adapt to the training. We are not machines therefore we must plan rest and recovery days. To get faster you should continually increase the stimulus either through extension (running further) or intensity (running faster). Running by increasing extension without intensity is not effective. The programme above does not consider any increase in stimulus. Upon waking up the person remembers what day it is by the run that they were doing. The best change that could be made to the programme is to spread the load over a 14 day or even a 21-day cycle. Over the 3-month period the longer runs could be extended further at the goal marathon pace. Extension, intensity and recovery are 3 easy concepts that will help you improve quicker and help make the training so much more motivating.