Running on the L8
Whether you refer to yourself a competitive or recreational runner, the fact of the matter is, if you’re investing time and effort into your training program, your end goal is improvement. As a runner, improvement means being able to run faster than you have before over a given distance and/or performing at a level that you were previously unable to. Although competitive running events are most often the best proving ground for the hard work that you lay down on a week-to-week basis, self assessment sessions can prove to be equally beneficial and are an integral means of evaluating the effectiveness of your training program.
There are a wide variety of ways to assess your body’s response to a given training progression. One of my staple, albeit very simplistic and unscientific, assessment sessions while competing as a long course triathlete, involved my favorite Sunday long run route: A 25k (15.5 mile) run over undulating terrain. I’d know that I was coming into “good form” when I could complete the course while running within 10% of my race day goal paces without having to push too hard to do so. There are a variety of very controlled and precise tests that one can pay for to assess improvement as well; VO2 max and lactate testing sessions are 2 options that come to mind. These tests are typically executed within the confines of a laboratory setting and provide a plethora of data for the testing subject. Unfortunately, they also come with a price tag and can be hard to access in some parts of the country.
A simple, yet very effective means of assessing your aerobic fitness on a month to month basis is by employing the “T20” test. This test can be carried out on a flat section of road, the track or even the treadmill. You’ll want to make sure that you’ve kept your training fairly light for the 3 – 4 days preceding the test to ensure that your system is well rested and ready to perform up to its full capacity.
The testing session involves 3 segments:
- The warm up segment. Approach this the same way that you would a normal track or treadmill based workout. See my prior training tips if you are unfamiliar with proper warm up protocol.
- The testing segment.
- The cool down segment. Once again, employ the same cool down protocol you would upon completion of a normal track or treadmill based workout.
Equipment: You will need a heart rate monitor and stop watch.
Course & Conditions: You should strive to execute the testing session on the same course and under similar conditions every time you employ it as air temperature, humidity levels, wind, course gradients, etc. will all have an effect on your ability to maintain a specific pace at a given heart rate/oxygen consumption rate.
Unlike a race, there is no need to run at maximal effort during the testing segment. Upon conclusion of the warm up routine, the athlete will run for 20 minutes continuously (hence the term “T20”). The athlete should use the first 10 minutes of the testing segment to gradually build to 85% of maximal heart rate. In order to do so, he or she will need to gradually increase pace along the way. If you choose to run on the track or treadmill, a safe pacing strategy would be to start off at your estimated marathon race pace and to then build by 3 – 5 seconds per mile every quarter mile/400 meters until heart rate finally reaches 85% of maximum. Once you have attained said heart rate, maintain your pace through the end of the 20 minute segment. Although allowing your heart rate to drift a couple of beats above 85% is just fine, try to limit it to no more than that. Reduce pace if need-be in order to maintain the goal heart rate along the way.
Upon completion of your cool down, note the amount of distance that you traveled during the second 10 minute segment of the 20 minute run. Denote this distance, along with the corresponding heart rate, in your training journal. You would be wise to also denote the environmental conditions that you faced when executing the test and your degree of fatigue leading into the test (i.e. how you felt during your warm up, and during the hours preceding the testing session).
As previously mentioned, for the distance runner, one of the main objectives of one’s training program is to increase the speed at which one can run for sustained periods of time; a key ingredient in your ability to do just that is to increase your running economy. Simply put, running economy is a measurement of the amount of oxygen your body consumes at a given speed. Oxygen consumption rates can be correlated very closely to heart rates, as it is the blood that transfers O2 to the working muscles; as the athlete begins to push harder, the muscles demand for O2 increases and blood must be pumped to the musculature at a faster rate in order to deliver it.
The T20 test is a very simple and effective means of tracking your body’s response to the training load. If your training program is an effective one, you should note an increase in pace at the same heart rate every time you execute the T20 test. My recommendation would be to test every 6 – 8 weeks, but testing every 4th week is also okay as long as you are not unrealistic in your expectations when it comes to self improvement (for a well trained endurance athlete, an increase of even 1 – 2% in pace per month would be considered outstanding). If you find that your T20 pace fails to improve after 6 – 8 weeks of solid training, it’s time to re-examine your training program and identify where it’s falling short; this is where a good coach can help of course!