Less can be more
by Norrie Williamson, author of ‘Everyone’s Guide to Distance Running’
Sometimes, less is more. This is an important, but difficult lesson for all runners to learn, but particularly those who run marathon and longer races.
There were times when the driving force behind my training was to maintain a ‘set’ target mileage per week, in the mistaken belief that this alone would ensure success. In 1983/4, for instance, my weekly average was over 145km for the full 52 weeks, and that included periods of illness or injury. During that year I ran over 1 600 miles in races and competed in many triathlons that also required cycling and swimming training.
This meant that the vast majority of my training was undertaken at one pace. It had to be because I had no energy left for quality work. By Thursday I would find myself totting up the distance run since Monday, and planning how to reach the magical 100 miles (161km) by the end of the week. Come hell or high water, I wouldn’t be truly satisfied unless I did. Luckily, by this time I had selected the long ultras such as 100 miles as my races of choice, and to a limited extent this type of training suited that ‘diversity’.
However, and this is important, had I known then what I know now, I would not have chosen that direction, and I can only ponder at how much better I may have been in some events had I adopted a different approach. It certainly made me a good one-pace runner, but did nothing for my speed and left me sadly lacking in shorter distance races. Most runners don’t share my ‘love’ for long races and yet it seems as though average runners are automatically drawn to making this ‘distance obsession’ the backbone of their running.
I am reminded of it each weekend when, even if there are no local, long-distance races, I see hordes of runners on their own training runs. As I venture into town on Saturdays and Sundays, I see a number of runners obviously finishing yet another long, slow distance session, yet a trip to King’s Park athletic track often finds the stadium deserted.
Although this can, to some extent, be understood in the build-up to a marathon, the same situation exists at all times of the year, even when there are no marathon races in the offing. Many runners simply don’t consider it worthwhile to run short 5-10km races unless they are on their doorsteps. Ironically, these shorter distances can be ideal, quality-training sessions if you don’t race them flat-out. If you are looking to put in a top-rate performance at such a distance, the longest run you need is about 15-20km, so the longer run is of little or no benefit.
When not training for a marathon, dropping distance is a key way to improve performance. This does not necessarily mean that the total weekly training load will be any easier, indeed it may actually seem more stressful, particularly for the first six weeks. Whereas a marathon is run at a fairly even ‘energy’ expenditure rate, 5-10km races require a runner to maintain the ‘pressure’. There is no point in running speed work on the track, with long breaks and recovery periods. After all, you can’t stop for such breaks during a race. It is preferable to run a fewer number of times with shorter breaks.
A track session of 3-4x1000m at best 10km pace with one minute rest, is closer to the requirements of a 10km race and will improve an average runner quite considerably. Including a warm-up and cool-down, this will only add 8km to the training distance, and will take the best part of an hour to complete. The benefits will, however, far outweigh those gained from running a long, slow 12-15km.
Speed and distance don’t mix Although marathons required good endurance, the mistake many top runners make in their attempts to go for ‘gold’, is to combine the rigours of frequent ‘speed sessions or races’ per week with a simultaneous increase in their weekly distance. This is impossible. In the early months, the objective is to improve your basic endurance, whereas later in the build-up, the emphasis moves towards speed endurance. However it is important to note that in training for events longer than 80km, the reverse is true. Initially the training is aimed at increasing speed capacity, and later the emphasis will change to improving your endurance. Unfortunately we tend to think that if a little of something is good for us, then a lot must be much better. This is not the case in running. There must be a balance and the basic training principles must be observed.
As the need to increase distance predominates in training for an ultra, the number of quality sessions should drop from three to two. Even in those two sessions it may be necessary to increase the recovery between intervals slightly, or to reduce the number of intervals, but don’t discontinue the sessions entirely.
On the other hand, runners who normally only train once a day, may add in an extra session on one or two days during the week. The midweek, long run should be gradually increased by 10-15%, and the weekend run increased on an alternating basis. This will allow your weekly distance to increase by 10-15% so that it will peak at your maximum distance capacity, approximately six weeks before the race. You can hold that distance for three weeks before commencing a taper to your chosen ultra.
If, however, you are training for a marathon or shorter, you will find that the ‘endurance’ and ‘speed’ blocks are reversed, allowing you to first build endurance and then improve speed. Endurance is decreased by 10-15% and the number of speed sessions is increased from two to three, and the recovery interval is reduced.
Remember to maintain the same principles regarding recovery or easy weeks between each training segment. Your training is only as good as your recovery.
* Norrie Williamson is a well-known running athlete, coach and race organiser, with a Comrades PB of 6:07 and 27th place. His book, ‘Everyone’s Guide to Distance Running’, published by Struik and available at Exclusive Books, provides practical guidance on all aspects of training as he attempts to prevent long distance runners from falling into the traditional training traps. For more, see www.coachnorrie.co.za.
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