I've put off writing about how to train for a 5K for a number of reasons, but the main one has been that, each time I start writing, I quickly refer to concepts that I'd then have to define (and then attempt to justify them) and things quickly spiral out of control. I promised to do a series of posts on 5K training, so I'm just going to dive into my training philosophy, which involves three ways of looking at things that sometimes complement each other and sometimes conflict. This should make everyone's eyes glaze over, but I'll also try to boil things down to useable concepts... eventually.
The numbers racket
There's a pseudo-objective way of looking at training that is mostly plugging numbers into formulas. Here's how it works. A race is 100% effort, by definition. An average everyday training run is done at 80% effort. What this means is that, if you run 5 miles in 50 minutes every day, you could expect to be able to train to run 5 miles in 40 minutes (80% of 50). It doesn't mean you could automatically do it, just that with proper training it's a reasonable expectation. If you average a week's or a month's running, you'll end up with some fractional distance which won't mean much, but if you do a lot of runs of differing lengths, you could plot them on a graph and get an idea of what one could do at various race distances. If you're equally good at all distances (and that's a big IF), and if you're a numbers geek, times tend to fall on a straight line: 1.075xlog(distance) + constant = log (time) and this works up to about 3 or 4 hours.
80% is what one can do every day. 85% one can do every other day for long periods of time (it is common for people to overestimate their abilities and try to run 85% every day, thinking it's 80%, and one can do it sometimes for four to seven days before getting an overuse injury). If 85% requires an easy day, 90% requires two - it's common for runners to feel good the day after a hard workout, only to feel very sore the following day and that's a good sign that one's over 90% effort. Once one gets to 95-100%, things get more complicated, but those efforts are essentially racing.
If running at a steady pace, 80% is about one ninth of the distance one could run that pace as a race (again, running 3 miles in 30 minutes does not mean one can run a marathon under four and a half hours, just that that is not an unreasonable goal). 85% is about one fifth of what one can do. 90% is about one third.
[and already people are scratching their heads, saying "isn't one third more like 33%?]
For a 5K, I find that averaging 50 minutes run each day is ideal, with easy days being 30 minutes or complete rest and longest runs being 90 minutes. This can lead to one extreme of running 85-90 minutes four times per week and to another of running long once every three weeks, with 11 runs per week of 30 minutes. Both are valid methods for some runners, neither is what I'll end up suggesting.
The subjective view of percentages
People don't work like machines, so all those numbers are meaningless when actually running and are useful only for analysis. There are, however, common threads in how one feels at these different percentages. During my years of doing high repetition interval workouts on a track, I found mental signals of perceived effort that held constant for me. I expect that others would have similar experiences. At 80%, I first thought about where I was in a workout; some people check their watches continuously, but this is where I'd first seriously think about whether I was half-way done or two-thirds of the way, or whatever it might be. At 85%, the first thought of quitting occurs; I'd think "would this be enough? could I stop here and be okay with stopping? how many more (400s, miles, repetitions) do I have left?" At 90%, I'd have to psyche myself up to do each repetition, think about "just this one more," think about how my competition could do what I'd just done but couldn't do two more. Beyond this, there'd be a repetition where I'd involuntarily quit part way through and then mentally force myself to start again at whatever speed I could muster to get through it - that would be 95%. 95% is the most I can get myself to do in a workout, 100% being reserved for races (competition, tapering, etc. is worth the last 5%).
Having said that 80% is an average day and that 80% is where I'd first think about where I was in a workout, it's normal to respond, "but I think about where I am in a run before I get to the end of my usual everyday workouts." The explanation I have for that takes too long to explain, but it's one of those inconsistencies between views I mentioned.
The energetics/ stride rate model
Here's where a run is broken down into components, based upon what energy source is (supposedly) being used primarily at each stage. These I'm going to try to correlate to the subjective intensities and to stride rate and breathing rhythms.
The only book I've seen that details stride rate and breathing rhythms is Jack Daniels', but my take on the subject is different. He states that top runners average 180 steps per minute [just for clarification: two steps is one stride], regardless of whether training or racing; I think that this is misleading, as these runners train at 6 minutes per mile or faster. I find that I average 180 steps per minute when running about 6 minutes per mile, but about 160 at 8 to 10 minutes per mile and 190-195 for brief all-out bursts of speed. He also advocates breathing a 2:2 rhythm for all runs, say breathing in and out on alternate left foot strikes, [is anyone still reading this? does this make any sense?] but I advocate that breathing rhythm only for easy "aerobic" runs.
If you think about your breathing during an easy training run, you're probably running too hard. At slow easy speeds, it's common to breathe somewhat irregularly; I find that I might inhale after 4,5,6 and sometimes 8 steps (and maybe occasionally 3 going uphill). When one starts to run harder, one's breathing becomes more regular and one generally falls into a pattern of running so that one inhales every fourth step. Going a bit faster, one may switch for a while to every third step. Faster yet and one breathes in every other step; this is as fast a rhythm as one can manage (trying to pant every step leads to very shallow labored breathing that can't be sustained - I've tried it). Running faster yet requires more oxygen, but one can't breathe at a faster rhythm, so one breathes faster by speeding up one's stride rate; one usually takes shorter strides to accomplish this. Running even faster requires even more oxygen and at this level, one can't breathe any faster, so one develops an "anaerobic oxygen debt" - on occasion, with practice, one can force oneself to get more oxygen by taking deeper breaths, which requires taking longer strides; if the stride frequency doesn't slow, longer strides means one speeds up, even when tiring.
The energetics idea is that one can run for hours at "aerobic" paces, but only up to an hour at what's called "anaerobic threshold." There's another level, named "maximal oxygen uptake," and another called "lactic acid tolerance," and a last called "phosphate level/ explosive speed," each of which has a duration limit. Working backward, the "phosphate" level is the last 4-15 seconds of the race, "lactate" the 1-3 minutes before that, "MVO2" the 2-10 minutes before that and the remainder is "anaerobic threshold."
Combining the three
I magine running a 5K race. After the first few strides, one has built up to a fast steady (but not exactly comfortable) pace, running above 80%, running so that one's breathing every two steps, running at what's considered anaerobic threshold. At a point determined from one's training, but ideally 13 minutes from when one expects to finish, one is at 85%, one's stride rate quickens and one is concerned that the pace is too fast. At a later point, ideally 3 minutes from the end, one's at 90%, the strides become longer, breathing is labored and inadequate to one's needs and one wants to quit at almost every step. Finally, seeing the finish, completely exhausted, one's beyond 95%, one's gasping for air as if drowning; at most 100 meters from the end, one's running completely without air, relying on reserves only in the muscles and lunging for the finish line as if one's life depends upon it... which, at that point, it sort of does.
That's how I run a 5K. Now I can get to the series on training to do it.
Lovin', touchin', squeezin'
1 week ago