As a coach I often listen to my adult runner friends comment that they are not getting any faster. Many of them mistakenly believe that they need to do “speed work” on the track to get to where they want. In reality they are missing a few key elements that serve as the foundation for every great distance runner.
Consistency – A big thing that many runners, including myself, suffer from is a lack of consistency in training. One week their log reads 30 miles, the next maybe 10. The pattern repeats month after month until the runner is so distraught in their training that they either concede to the fact that they will never get any faster or they move on to the next addiction. For some it is CrossFit, for others it is fast food and TV.
To keep more consistent, I recommend that runners choose a goal race and come up with a training schedule. Find friends who are training for the same race, and hold each other accountable. Local groups can help motivate runners to be consistent in their training. Below are some local groups or challenges that runners can join.
Steady State / Tempo Runs – Before going out to the track, I recommend everyone start incorporating at least 1 steady state / tempo run into their training run per week. These type of runs range from 15-30 minutes and are run at your current 5k time plus 25-40 seconds per mile. These extended effort workouts increase endurance by improving your lactate threshold. The lactate threshold is the upper edge of where an athletes body can do work while still clearing lactate in the blood stream. In simple unscientific terms, when we exercise our body produces a fuel source that is processed by oxygen. When we accumulate too much of this fuel source in our blood stream, our bodies have trouble processing it. When we pass this threshold our bodies experience a burning sensation. By doing steady state / tempo runs we increase this ceiling and in turn increase our endurance.
Long Runs – Going out and running 3-5 miles a day is great on the consistency end, but will not necessarily help improve speed or endurance. Our bodies get better via the process of stress and adaptation. When beginning a running regiment of 3-5 miles a day, there might be slight gains due to the simple fact that something is better than nothing. After a few weeks our bodies adapt and no longer improve from these short effort runs. At this point runners need to consider including a long run in their training. A long run consists of 25% – 40% of the weekly overall mileage and is done at a pace that is slower than what is run on easy / recovery days. Long runs help build capillaries , which increase endurance by improving your bodies ability to transport oxygen to the muscles. It also strengthens the muscle skeletal system and helps your body become more efficient. IMHO the long run is the single most important run that should be included on every athletes weekly training schedule.
Rest – For some, the amount of training and type of workouts done is not the problem. They instead, suffer from doing too much. When trying to become a better runner, an athlete should have a goal race followed by a built in period of rest ranging from 7 – 10 days of no running. Our bodies and mind go through a lot while training for our “A” race and need the time to recover after a big build up. World famous coach, Greg McMillan, has a great article on his web site that talks about the importance of rest after a big build up, click here to read it. Following the rest phase, runners are recommended to build up slowly and not jump back in where they left off.
One of my favorite stories I use as an example to why runners need to build in rest weeks, is that of my personal train friend in Jacksonville. This friend used to buy running shoes from me, and when doing so we would talk training philosophy. During one of our talks she expressed that she was frustrated that no matter what she did, she couldn’t break 22:00 for 5k. She was doing long runs, tempos, hill repeats, and even track work. She has a meal plan, incorporated strength training into her regime and was getting amount of sleep every night. After discussing her situation, we realized she hadn’t taken more than 2 days off in a row of running in over 3 years. Her body was running on fumes and no matter how hard she worked she couldn’t break 22:00 for 5k. When advised to take time off, she was afraid and said she couldn’t afford to lose her fitness. A few weeks later during a PT session with one of her clients she turned her ankle and was forced to take 6 weeks off of running. Upon her return to racing, she broke 21:30 for 5k with no real effort. She came back to the running store I was at to let me know that she was now a firm believer in taking breaks.
Runners looking to get faster at any distance from 5k to the marathon should make sure they have a solid foundation of the above before haphazardly throwing in “speed work” to increase their performance. Doing track work without a solid base is a recipe for early peaking and injury. Based off of years of experience as both a coach and an athlete, I have seen runners hit great heights while spending very little time on the track. While in high school our track was also a drivers ed course, we maybe did 5 real track workouts per year. The rest of our workouts were done in the grass or on marked trails. I had 3 teammates who were individual state champions and 2 who were All- Americans. The two All-Americans had PRs of 14:59 (male), and 17:13 (female) for 5k.