Training for Long-Term Progression
Updated: Sep 27, 2020
Life is Insane Right Now
First of all, the elephant in the room… we all know that life is insane right now. I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t had their lives affected in some way, or in some cases completely turned upside-down over the past few months. Whatever you’re feeling in response to that is totally natural. There are several AMAZING articles out there about mental health, including this one by Zoë Rom.
I can’t say it as well as she and many others have, but I wholeheartedly agree.
If your life has been dramatically affected, this may not be the most ideal time to focus on your training. If that describes you, don’t let running add stress. If you feel good and have the time, continue to get outside each day. Just don’t put undue pressure on yourself when your life is turned upside-down.
So with that big caveat, let’s dig into training a bit..
As all of us know, almost all races and sporting events in the past from the beginning of March through the end of May have been cancelled or postponed. I’m not an epidemiologist, but I would suspect we’ll continue to see cancellations of larger or more ‘close-contact’ events through the end of the year, possibly longer. If we get the oft-discussed “second wave,” we may have another round of cancellations as well.
That said, in my non-epidemiologist view, I believe there is hope for smaller local races to adapt and return sooner than larger events. So make friends with your local race directors, and stay tuned for opportunities. Continue to follow recommendations from the CDC and local governments as you plan your race schedule. Just because an event is scheduled to occur doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, or is completely safe.
Still, there will be a lot of cancelled events in 2020, and we shouldn’t get in the habit of planning races. I don’t say that to dishearten you! In fact, I want it to motivate you. Here’s a question:
Think about your long-term running goals. If there were no barriers, what are your wildest running dreams? Qualifying for Boston? An Olympic Trials qualifier? Golden Ticket to Western States? The Grand Slam?
These goals sound truly crazy, and maybe they are, but what do you know of your true potential? Reaching your potential takes years of consistent training. If you’re constantly training for the next race a few months away, there’s a chance you’re leaving a lot of potential fitness improvements on the table!
How do you get those improvements? Don’t think of a race as the goal. The goal of training is becoming a better runner. The race is just a way to celebrate/quantify that, but it’s not required. You’re still fit, whether you prove it with a race or not.
I’ve seen a lot of questions from people on social media in the wake of the recent race cancellations due to Covid-19. Most of them are wondering something along the lines of “my race is cancelled, so I’m not training for anything. What should I do?” Or “I’m not training because my race was cancelled, so I just go and run sometimes.” I even saw one: “How do I train when I’m not training?”
These questions seem to suggest that they believe that fitness is created in the 16-20 weeks before a target race, and in between, you’re just idling and jogging around. In reality, that’s not a recipe for sustainable progress!
Professional athletes, with their carefully constructed race seasons and training blocks, can get away with living training block to training block. They’re already close to the peak of their athletic lives even in an off-season, so they can realistically get to peak racing fitness over the course of a single training block.
For almost everyone else, nowhere near our athletic peaks, NOTHING could be further from the truth. Fitness isn’t created in 16-20 weeks. It’s built brick-by-brick over months and years of consistency. You can, and should train with purpose with or without a race on the calendar!
That’s not to say that if your 100mi was cancelled, you need to keep doing high volume, long runs in the mountains, etc. It just means that there can still be intent behind your training!
Now, think again about the long-term CRAZY goal you thought of earlier. What does training for that goal look like? If your goal was the right kind of crazy, even the thought of the training for it seems impossible! GOOD! Now think about how you’d prepare just to do that training. Now back up another step. Maybe even two more steps if your goal was big enough.
What we want to do right now is do the training to be able to do the training… to be able to do the training to meet your goal. What we’re aiming for is a long-term athletic progression. Sure, you can celebrate that progression from time-to-time with a race, but remember that’s not required to prove your fitness. Your fitness is there, whether you show it on a clock or not.
Now those that love racing might be shaking their heads at me right now. That’s cool! But just imagine: you used this time to become a better runner. Now you don’t to have plan ahead and train “for” a race. You’re already trained! 50 miler in two weeks? No big deal, you have the consistent volume to at least go out and have fun! A 10k on a fast course? Sure thing, you’ve been spending a little time at your 10k effort or faster each week, because you’ve been training with purpose. Will you be ideally trained for each of these races? Of course not. But you can go out with your newfound fitness gains and have fun, and maybe even still PR!
Thinking back to where we’re at now in the endurance community: Does it make sense to just spend your time idling, waiting for races to happen again, or can you actively improve your fitness to reach new athletic heights?
First a quick note about race alternatives. When the first wave of race cancellations hit, I wrote this post. It has suggestions if you were nearing the end of a training block, but had your race taken away from you. If you’re a goal-oriented person, these options can be really helpful to keep you going in the last few weeks of your training block.
This post is for those who were still in the beginning of training, but have had their races cancelled out to June, July or even further. Does it make sense to just spend your time idling, or can you actively improve your fitness to reach new athletic heights?
Training for Long-Term Progression
So, you have no races on the calendar in the next 3, 4, perhaps even 6 or more months. What do you do?
Build Consistent Easy Volume First First, start where you’re at. If you took an off-season, training very little because you had no upcoming races, you need to build consistency first. Start by slowly adding easy run days until you’re running five, or perhaps six days per week. Then you can start adding a little distance to various runs. I’ll often have my athletes add distance to two to three runs each week, keeping the others the same as the week prior. Overall, listen to your body, and aim for consistency throughout the week rather than just a few very long runs each week.
Once you have built your consistent easy running up to a point where you’d normally start a training plan for a race, this is where you can start focusing on long-term improvements! There’s no mountain 100mi race in your future. What should you do?
Build Speed and Economy Second
If you follow the careers of professional athletes, it often goes something like this. In middle school, a lot of races are 1 - 2 miles. In high school, that athlete might move up to the 5k in XC, and the mile or 2 mile in track season. In college, they might move up to the 10k in XC, and 5k/10k on the track. In their pro career, they’ll likely race the 5k/10k for awhile before eventually moving up to the marathon.
There’s a good reason for this. By building that speed and running economy first, it’s easier to have those benefits carry over to the easier efforts that accompany longer races. Running fast takes practice. Practice is best done in small doses that are relatively painless. So going out and trying to run a mile at your 5k pace isn’t going to give you as many benefits as going faster for a much, much shorter time.
So what does that look like? In the simplest terms, start with strides. These are fast bursts of speed at a pace that you could hold for 3-4 minutes or so. The trick? You’re only holding that pace for 20-30 seconds, taking 2 minutes of easy running in between, and repeating 4-6 times, sometimes more. In that short an interval, your breathing doesn’t really increase much. Your heart rate barely ticks up. In short, your body is learning that fast doesn’t mean hard. The benefit is primarily neuromuscular: your brain learns to send better signals to your legs, recruiting more muscle fibers and improving your stride length and power over time. I like to start athletes I work with on a moderate hill for these strides, with about a 6-8% grade. This develops power without as much injury potential as doing them on a flat surface. After a few weeks we’ll work into flat-surface strides, and then move on!
After strides, my suggestion is train like a 5k/10k runner for awhile! You don’t have to run a race. You can do a time trial, or just put in a block of the training, and then shift your focus.
Generally that would mean (for a once-weekly workout) gradually lengthening intervals and shortening recovery periods. I’ll usually start my athletes with fast intervals of 1 minute with a 2 minute recovery, and move up from there.
Build Strength or Shift Focus
Here’s how to plan what’s next. Think about that long-term crazy goal. Do you want to get faster, or just move up in distance for adventure's sake? (They're not necessarily mutually exclusive!)
Depending on the amount of time before that goal, you can move your way up through the intermediary goals. Again, you don’t have to run the race. But if you start off training like a 10k runner, then gradually moving into marathon training, then to 50mi/100mi training if desired, you’re almost certain to unlock new athletic heights! If your goal was big enough, you can then take a brief down/off season, and start again unlocking that speed and economy to unlock even greater heights!
Here’s the absolute basic idea I’ll leave you with.
At it's simplest, you have two options when training:
A: Train to run long, then try to make your pace faster.
B: Train to run fast, then try and make your runs longer.
For almost everyone, option B is going to work better for long-term athletic development. So, if your race is cancelled, don’t despair! Use this time to build an amazing breakthrough for the second half of 2020, or even 2021!
If you have questions, contact me on the Coaching page! I’m always happy to chat training with no obligation. I also have a few more openings for athletes if you're interesting in some help reaching your potential!