"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Friday, November 2, 2012

What No One's Told You about Running Training

A competitive runner's career has four phases and how you train is not terribly important in all of them.

Lag Phase

Early in one's running, no matter what you do, you don't seem to improve very much. It takes a while for your body to respond, to say... "oh I get it, you're going to keep doing this." A lot of people quit because of this. Others live in this phase - the biggest change in running as a sport since 1980 has been the development of the true recreational, non-competitive runner who still enters races.

Growth Phase

In that first phase, you might get a surprisingly good race result and then start thinking you might have a future in racing. You start racing more often, hoping to repeat that result. You start thinking about what you could do to run faster. In this phase, which on the average lasts about 4 years, you improve rapidly, regardless of how you train; every workout is new enough that it brings results. This is where runners always make the mistake of post hoc ergo prompter hoc, thinking that the specific things they've been doing in training have brought specific results. Runners will tell you that they've found THE training plan to run faster, because they followed it and they got faster; if it stops working, they switch to other plans until they improve again and then they tell you they've found the REAL way to train. They think their coach is a genius because they've improved under their tutelage, when the coach usually is just making things up day-by-day.

If you're in this phase, enjoy it! You'll spend the rest of your running career trying to recapture the days when you seemed to improve effortlessly.

Stationary Phase

Once improvement starts slowing, real training begins. You get less and less with increasing workloads. You have to train specifically, you have to plan carefully for a few particular races. This is where training can start seeming like a chore and you have to decide how much effort you want to put in to cut off 1 per cent from your finishing times. This phase, where you're in peak shape, lasts maybe 10 years, if you're lucky.

Decline Phase

Eventually, nothing gets you to improve any more and you struggle to hang on to what gains you've made. Training harder just becomes overtraining and you lose fitness. Train less and you lose fitness. Train differently and nothing changes. The decline is slow at times and age-related - nerves fire more slowly, recovery takes longer, etc. - and sometimes is rapid and injury-related. Your fastest races are behind you. A lot of competitive runners, perhaps most, retire at this point.

Those who continue, however, may find that their best races aren't necessarily their fastest. It takes a change in mindset that's difficult after a long racing career. I hope that's where I am.


Olga King said...

Yup. I am in that last one. Which I had accepted with, hopefully, grace. I think so. I battled it for a while, and now I don't anymore.

PiccolaPineCone said...

definitely in the last one. the trick to staying happen there is to have non-quantitative goals and get creative. still working on that. the younger one started training seriously, the younger one reaches this phase. often people in this phase (depending on what they have done before) will keep increasing their race distance (or decreasing) looking to find new territory in which they can ostensibly improve.

mike_hinterberg said...

post hoc ergo prompter hoc

I didn't know -- but needed -- this phrase, so thanks.
Been plenty frustrated with people's unscientific, anecdotal "evidence" in training and nutrition.
How about the stages of running attitude:

Running sucks, maybe I'll run a 5k, I finished a half marathon, I finished a marathon, I raced a marathon, I ran Boston, Boston's overrated and I ran a 50M, I ran a 100M, I ran a tough mountainous 100M, running sucks...

Carilyn said...

Good post, Steve! I seem to be pretty static at the moment - able to get fairly consistent results - but my motivation is definitely waning. Not sure if I will be able to transition to a better attitude or not :)

Alene Gone Bad said...

It's always cyclical. Whenever I think I'm burned out I take a break and then somehow my attitude gets better, and I begin the pursuit of the next goal. I've had my moments of, "I'm done with running, I'll just stick to painting and run for fitness." And that lasts about 30 seconds...

There's more to running than speed, thankfully. Otherwise we'd all be screwed.

wildknits said...

I hope this is where you are at as well. Accepting where we are at (without settling) is a gift. Seems to me that running should be something that one can do lifetime - or nearly - if goals/expectations are adjusted to the physical reality.

Good luck tomorrow!!!