A common belief amongst competitive distance runners is that in order to increase one’s fitness, one must run … a lot. Although I will be the first in line to advocate the fact that success in distance running requires a steadfast commitment to a long-term, rigorous training progression, I will also caution that obsessing first and foremost about the number of miles run during a given week can also present its fair share of pitfalls. Unfortunately, many runners make the mistake of correlating weekly mileage to the effectiveness of their training program. The thinking goes something like this: “If I run 80 miles per week instead of 40, my fitness will increase twice as fast, and I’ll be much faster and stronger come summer.” Let me explain why this thinking, although admirable, is flawed.
Know What Your Training For
A successful training program is one that prepares an athlete to perform in a very specific manner at a specific event/course, under specific weather conditions. For instance, training for nothing but cool weather, 5k events that all occur on relatively flat, fast courses will leave you severely undertrained for a marathon that takes place on a hilly course and features hot and humid weather conditions. Intelligent training design begins with asking yourself the following question: “What am I training for?” Once you know the answer, you begin planning your course of action.
Plat Specific Training Phases
The next step to intelligent training design is to plot the specific training phases that you will progress through as you build towards your key, or series of key events. Despite what some experts may claim, there are a number of training approaches that one can employ when training for a given event, the most effective of which will best meet the individual athlete’s needs. For instance, some athletes may choose to sprinkle a little more intensity into their routine during the early stages of their progression while keeping their total training volume relatively conservative. Doing so may provide slower or newer athletes with an opportunity to hone their speed while also building the necessary endurance base that will carry them throughout the remainder of their event specific build up. Another group of well trained, naturally gifted athletes who already possess a high degree of top end fitness/speed may choose to forgo higher training intensity altogether in favor of a much higher volume approach during their base phase preparation. Although proponents of either approach may vigorously argue the merits of employing one routine or the other, I’ve been around long enough to confidently say that there is more than one way to induce the high degree of event specific fitness that one must attain by the time the big competition rolls around.
This brings us back to our initial discussion on the prioritization of weekly training volume. The number of miles that an athlete runs during a particular training week or block is completely arbitrary and, during the pre and competitive training cycles in particular, nearly meaningless in terms of how the athlete’s degree of event specific fitness is going to be affected. Give me two athletes of equal ability who are training for a local 5k and allow one to run nothing but 70 – 80 miles per week at relatively easy paces while the other employs a more event specific, complex training routine that “only” sees her topping out at 50 miles per week, and I guarantee you that our 50 miler runner will win, by a large margin, on race day.
Know Your Training Saturation Point
With the exception (in some cases) of the base phase training phase, total training volume, at least when measured in terms of miles and/or total hours, should never constitute a priority. A very effective, albeit simple, way to the define the uppermost limit of appropriate training volume is looking at it this way: The athlete should strive to train as much as possible until their total training volume begins to negatively impact the event specific training sessions that allow for gains in event specific fitness to occur. This training “saturation” point is going to be different for every athlete of course; many Olympic level athletes may be able to maintain a steady diet of 100+ miles of running per week along with a full load of event specific quality work, while your run of the mill recreational runner may find that 30 miles per week works best. As a general rule, increasing one’s fitness means increasing one’s capacity to train harder and more often, so for those of you who currently train on the lower side of the training volume perspective, don’t despair: as you continue to log the key workouts along with those supplemental base miles, your fitness will increase, and who knows … perhaps someday you’ll be able to boast of the fact that you train like an Olympian too!