In the last post in this series, I stated that in the first few years of racing one should run without a plan, race often and race a variety of distances. After that introduction, it's time to formalize things. The first thing one should do is specialize; there are a few runners who seem to do well at a wide variety of distances, but nearly all of them train specifically for one distance at a time; everyone else has a small range of distances at which they do best. It's not necessary to always train for the distance at which one is best suited - I still consider myself a 5K runner who's doing ultramarathons - but it's useful to know where ones abilities lie.
So how do you find your best distance? If you've done a lot of races over a variety of distances, you probably have found out from trial and error. There will be some races where you seem to be closer to the frontrunners when not seeming to work very hard and some where you seem to work as hard as you can only to finish further back in the pack. If you haven't done a lot of racing, it's not as simple; gernerally, people go to various sources that compare relative race performances. Currently, the most popular of these is the McMillan calculator, based upon formulas Jack Daniels came up with in the 1970's - it works well for a subset of runners, specifically those who are best at distances taking more than 90 minutes to finish. I prefer the Gardner/Purdy tables from the 1960's, which seem to work well at distances from 800 meters to 50K (the 8K and 1/2 marathon are very slightly off, I think, and I can't speak for the accuracy under 800 meters). Both of these (and others) can be found in "The Lore of Running" by Tim Noakes. As a practical matter, one often finds one's best distance by doing races and finding oneself thinking "I'd have done better if the race were longer" or "I'd have done better if the race were shorter."
Oddly, if one improves dramatically, one usually finds that the "best distance" becomes longer. This is because one really is best for one particular amount of time, rather than one particular distance; as one improves, pace increases and one can run further in that amount of time.
I had long wondered if how one trains significantly alters one's best distance and I started running ultramarathons to find out, as it required a complete change in the way I trained. It was an experiment of one, but for me, there wasn't much change in best distance. While I got better at the longest distances, I got worse at the shorter ones, yet I remained better compared to other runners at short distances than I was at long distances.
When one looks at training schedules written by elite coaches, it's worthwhile considering the amount of time spent racing. A marathon schedule will be best suited to those running 2:10-2:30; for example, it may say that one should never run more than 2.5 hours for a long run, which is reasonable for elite runners, but will leave 5:00 marathoners struggling to finish. If one takes that 2:10-2:30 to finish a shorter race, say a 1/2-marathon, then the marathon schedule might work for that race.
Race plans and schedules tend to be written by coaches of Olympians and college teams. These runners are training for a specific distance on a specific day and thus are designed to have one "peak" at that one race, so that they have a chance of winning. The majority of schedules are also designed for marathons, as these are races one usually has to sign up for many months in advance and which require a long preparation time.
The vast majority of runners, however, are training for time, not place, and would do better to train as world record setters do. A world-class miler or 5K runner will strive to be in good shape in a given season or a couple of months and will race frequently during this time, waiting for the conditions to be right to go for a personal best time. World-class marathoners do something similar, training until they think they're ready for a good race, then asking races for (free) entry at the last moment; if the weather's bad or something goes wrong, they bail out early and find another race in a week or two. Average runners don't have that luxury in marathons or ultramarathons, so I recommend a three race plan: one picks the race one wants to do well in and signs up for it plus another race four weeks earlier and a third race four weeks later. The first race is used as a fast training run, but if the conditions are right, one can make the decision to race it all-out. If the first race is done as a training run and for some reason one's goal race doesn't go as planned, there's the third race to use for trying for a personal best. Three long races get expensive, especially if one doesn't plan to race all of them, but it's better than having a bad race and feeling one's wasted an entire year training for it.
Fisher's Big Wheel
1 week ago