Training is a simple yet complex process designed to help an athlete reach his or her goals. It's simple because the point of training is to go further and faster. It’s complex because, as you try to make sense of the training process, you can easily tumble down rabbit holes.
The Fleet Feet Training Arch helps you see the forest through the trees. By keeping the big picture in mind, you can prioritize your training and focus on the big picture.
No matter what race distance you're targeting, there are four main components on which you’ll want to focus in order to optimize your results: Endurance, Speed, Strength, and Flexibility.
The first two steps that need to be taken to reach the top of the Training Arch involve the running/cardiovascular aspects of training. As you move upward, the focus shifts to the supplemental aspects—the part of training runners often overlook. Supplemental training allows you to avoid most overuse injuries, become a more efficient athlete, and optimize your training efforts.
When we talk about endurance training, we are referring to longer duration, lower intensity workouts. As a runner, the long run is your primary tool to improve your endurance and therefore is the staple of nearly all training programs. That being said, there is no set distance for how long a long run should be. Experience, pace, race distance, and other factors can influence the ideal long run. A sound rule of thumb: your long run should be 20 to 30 percent of your weekly mileage.
Intensity level is another aspect of the long run you need to consider. The goal of the long run is to train around your aerobic threshold. When he visited Fleet Feet, Meb Keflezighi told us that he runs his long run (aerobic threshold) at 90 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace. If one of the most aerobically-developed people on the planet runs that much slower than marathon pace, many runners probably need to rethink their long run efforts.
Running slow to run faster seems counterintuitive. How does going so painfully slow help you to go faster? When training at aerobic threshold, you teach your body to increase fat oxidation, increase the number and size of capillaries, increase the number of mitochondria, and increase stroke volume of the heart. Let's break down how each of those things help us to achieve our goals.
Increased fat oxidation means that the body more readily utilizes fat as a fuel source. You can store about two hours’ worth of glycogen in your body, but over five hundred hours’ worth of fat. The more you can teach the body to utilize fat as a fuel source, the better "gas mileage" you'll get out of your energy stores. By training too fast too often (especially on long runs), you're teaching the body to utilize a greater percent of glycogen, which means, if you are training for a half or full marathon, you are increasing the likelihood of bonking on race day.
Increasing the number and size of capillaries allows the body to send more blood to and from the muscle. That means more fuel and oxygen is going to the muscle and more waste is being removed. Imagine Interstate 270 narrowed down to two lanes. It wouldn’t take long for it to back up. But if 270 were six lanes wide, it’d be able to transport a lot more cars without a traffic jam. Moreover, the most efficient time to add lanes to the highway would be during low traffic times. Well, the body is very similar to that. It is during long duration, low intensity runs that our cardiovascular system focuses on making more and bigger capillaries (lanes) to carry blood (cars). This is huge for those shorter, faster races where cellular respiration is inefficient due to an anaerobic state for much, if not all, of the race.
Increasing the number of mitochondria helps the body develop more powerhouses. It's like adding more cylinders to your engine. More cylinders with increased stroke volume (pumping more blood with each stroke) means a bigger, faster engine. Developing a bigger, faster, more efficient engine is a win in anyone's book.
The issue most runners have in proper training is that they often don't go slow enough on their long runs to properly focus on improving aerobic threshold. We look at the cardiovascular system as a plumbing system, with the endurance step of the Training Arch helping us to develop bigger pipes. Endurance is the foundation of our Training Arch because a bigger base will be able to hold a bigger Arch.
After you've laid the foundation for our Arch, the next step is to add speed. Continuing the plumbing analogy, the speed step is where you'll build a bigger sink and drain. Speed covers a rather broad spectrum and must be narrowed according to your goal. Someone training to crush a 5K will have a different speed focus than someone training for his first marathon. That being said, there are some primary intensities you'll want to include in your training.
Speed is a relative term. It’s also subjective. For instance, for some, an 8-minute mile is a slow jog, but for others it is a dead sprint. Because of that, a discussions of speed includes different intensity levels. Endurance athletes should focus on two primary levels: anaerobic threshold and max VO2 zone.
Your anaerobic threshold is the point at which your anaerobic system, not your aerobic system, becomes the limiting factor. Keeping with our plumbing analogy, this is the point at which you have more water going in the sink than going down the drain. It is similar in effort level to an hour-long race. As you improve your aerobic base and specifically train your anaerobic threshold, you can move this tipping point closer and closer to your max heart rate.
Your max VO2 training zone is what most people think of when they think of speed work. This is the intense, huff-and-puff level of running. During this kind of training, you are running near 100 percent of your VO2 Max. VO2 max is the amount of oxygen your body can utilize per kilogram of body weight per hour. Basically, it’s how efficient you are at using oxygen. The speed you’re looking at here would be similar to how fast you can run a race that lasts 10 to 15 minutes, at most.
Training anaerobically helps improve speed, neuromuscular recruitment, and economy. However, spending too much time in this zone leads to overtraining. Where the endurance step of the Arch helps with oxygen transport, anaerobic workouts help your body become more efficient at oxygen utilization. By mixing and matching these zones, you can develop an efficient and effective path to reaching your goals. This is why you see elite runners flying along at what seems like an easy effort. They've developed an exceptional plumbing system that allows them to run on the razor's edge between an exceptional performance and a crash-and-burn blowup.
Not surprisingly, runners tend to focus on running—and they ask a lot of their bodies during training. Considering you take about 1,800 steps per mile—with several times your body weight loaded into each step—you can see how your body might need some supplemental training. By properly strengthening your muscles, you can help to prevent injuries while also improving performance.
Strength training may be the most overlooked aspect of training. Many runners do a great job of getting out the door and racking up the miles. The problem is that many don't do all the maintenance required to allow their bodies to continue to train. You have well over 600 muscles in our body. All of them are not balanced, strong, and supple. Running does a tremendous job of finding the weak muscles. By incorporating some supplemental muscle activation strength training into your training program, you can prevent many of the common mechanisms that cause training to collapse.
But don’t try to put the Incredible Hulk to shame. You simply want muscular balance. That means your goal is for your muscles to all work together and fire properly. Having strong muscles that overcompensate for weak muscles leads to nagging injuries, such as IT band syndrome, shin splints, etc. And on race day, muscle imbalance leads to quicker fatigue because our muscles aren’t properly sharing the load.
When compared to their ancestors, today's runners live very sedentary lifestyles. We don't live on dirt trails, nor do we spend our days running to catch food (or avoid being food). Because of our relatively sedentary lifestyle, we have a lot of muscles that are not only weak, but don't activate properly. To develop the functional strength needed to benefit from your training, you need to re-teach your muscles to fire properly. Targeted and specific strength programs can train the correct muscles to fire and help you develop muscular balance.
One of the primary areas you need to work on strengthening is your core. Having a weak core exacerbates many muscular imbalances. A weak core causes you to deliver less energy to the ground. That energy is lost and absorbed by other muscles rather than being used to propel you forward. The bench press is a good analogy for why you need core strength. It's obvious that running builds strong legs and lungs. Imagine your legs are like a big weight plate on one end of a bench press bar and your lungs are a big weight plate on the other end of the bar. Your core strength serves as the bar connecting the two end weights. If you have a weak core, it's like having a rope in place of a steel bar. No successful bench pressing for you. Planks, bridges, and bodyweight exercises are the best way to develop core strength. Sit-ups often put you in a poor position and don't truly focus on the areas that can help you the most.
Tight hips, tight quads, and tight calves do not a fantastic race make. Every successful runner includes flexibility in his or her training. Flexibility is the top step of our Arch. As explained above, some muscles are weak and don't work properly. Because of that, other muscles are overdoing it—and getting tight as a result. You don't need to make running tougher by fighting your own tied-up-in-knots bodies. You need to improve your body's flexibility and range of motion to alleviate the possibility of injury while also improving your performance.
When we refer to flexibility, we're not talking about trying to turn you into Gumby. It's about improving range of motion and alleviating discrepancies in muscular imbalances in range of motion. You are doing the same repetitive motion thousands of times throughout a run. The involved muscles will be understandably fatigued. They will tighten up. You want to keep them loose so that you're not fighting yourself each and every step you take. There are several ways you can improve your flexibility and the suppleness of your muscles. Myofascial release, stretching, and yoga are some excellent ways to help stay ahead of rigor mortis.
Myofascial release can take many forms. Chiropractors and physical therapists have several techniques (ART, Graston, ASTYM) at their disposal to help alleviate tight muscles. These professionals can help break up scar tissue in your muscles that is inhibiting our performance or causing injury. The most popular way for you to perform myofascial release is with a foam roller. Foam rollers should be a runner's best friend, not something that sits in the corner collecting dust. Foam rolling is like brushing your teeth. To have a painless visit to the dentist, you should brush your teeth twice a day. To have a painless (relatively speaking) running or race experience, you should foam roll daily (or twice daily), as well.
All too often what sabotages runners is not over-training, but under-recovering. Runners don't do the necessary foam rolling (and refueling) of their bodies require before they head out the door again. If you're too busy to fit foam rolling into your routine, you need to cut 10-15 minutes from your runs to make time to roll. Remember that a "run" is not done when you're finished running. You cannot neglect to take the time to properly stretch and foam roll after you run—or you will have to find the time to visit a physician later.
As we said at the beginning, training is a simple yet complex process. By following the Fleet Feet Training Arch, you can keep the big picture in mind. Make sure to incorporate Endurance, Speed, Strength, and Flexibility into training in the proper amounts to be a healthier, happier athlete.