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Is my training plan right for me?
With nine weeks to go before the Australian Running Festival commences in Canberra we find most recreational runners are starting to get into the real meat of their training plans. These training plans are often free and sourced from the internet. They tend to be generic in nature and vary in duration from 12 – 16 weeks. These plans often relate to specific events such as the Canberra Marathon or City2Surf. They are often referred to in the industry as ‘spreadsheet’ training plans. On the other hand some runners will seek out a running coach for a specific plan for their event with additional guidance and support throughout their training. Which one are you?
I recently read an article from Runners Connect about the most common mistakes with training plans and it really resonated with me and my running journey. When I first started endurance running I searched the internet and found a number of free ‘spreadsheet’ training plans that I attempted to follow. They were easy to understand but weren’t very flexible when I had niggling injuries that prevented me for training that day or I was sick. I am also sure that they all had the majority of the following mistakes built into them.
Later on I sought out a run coach and have been following him blindly ever since, not truly understanding the purpose of my workouts, tweaking the pace and distance during workouts. I have made inroads into my fitness and also achieved PRs in nearly all my distances with the exception of the marathon. Running a good marathon still eludes me and I would say it has a lot to do with the faults mentioned below.
We are drawing closer to the start of the run season and most runners have had a few weeks of building into their plans. Now the real work begins for them. But when was the last time you really looked at your training plan? A real in-depth assessment of everything included in the plan including your workouts, the volume, and the paces. Do you understand the why? Why the author has you running that 8x 800m interval session? Why your tempo run is set at that pace? Why are you running those hill repetitions?
Understandably most recreational runners don’t need to know the intricate details and science behind their plan. After all they are not likely to be chasing a win but more likely doing this for fitness and fun or other personal reasons. There is no reason why you can’t make a ton of progress by just following along with the plan and not really understanding it. But you would like to hope that whoever wrote it surely understands.
Most ‘spreadsheet’ training plans will cover the necessary training principles of Overload; Progression, Reversibility and Specificity, but unfortunately they tend to suffer from a lot of the same mistakes. These mistakes are mainly tied to 1980’s physiology and a misunderstanding of the physiological demands of the race distance for runners like you. They are also very generic and don’t take into account your physical and training ages, training history, motivations and desired outcomes.
This blog focusses on four of the most common mistakes often found in spreadsheet training plans. As you read this, have a copy of your training plan open and see if you can spot any of these mistakes in your workouts.
FLAW 1: NO RACE SPECIFIC WORKOUTS
There are four principles of training and they are Overload, Reversibility, Progression and Specificity. The principle of specificity means that each training load produces its own specific response and adaptations dependant on the physiological stress encountered by the body. A training load must therefore be specific to the fitness objectives of each individual runner and their goal race.
As the name implies, race specific workouts means tailoring your workouts to the specific physiological demands of your race distance. Now, this might seem obvious – isn’t every workout in your training plan training you for the demands of the race, especially those plans written for the specific race like the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival marathon training plan for the Sydney Marathon? Well, not really. The difference between the physiological demands of commonly run race distances can be quite different. Certainly, there is some overlap between distances in close proximity, like the 5k and 10k, but there is a large difference between the specific demands of the marathon and half marathon.
It’s important to remember that when you’re in a race-specific phase of training (usually 4-6 weeks in duration and about 6 weeks prior to your event), your performances at distances outside your goal race range will suffer e.g. if your goal race is the marathon your 5k or 10k performances will drop. Most runners forget this important lesson when they schedule tune-up races like 5ks and 10ks when training for the marathon or when trying to cap off a summer of 5k racing with a half marathon. The most obvious difference is the paces these events are run at, but also the different cardiovascular systems (aerobic or anaerobic) used.
There is a balance in training that gets ignored in the four to six week race-specific phase of training. You’re sacrificing overall running fitness for better results at one specific race distance. If you’re targeting the 5k, you’ll be gaining speed endurance, but losing fitness to your aerobic system and lactate threshold. Conversely, when training for the marathon, you’ll rarely be running faster than half marathon pace and you’ll be constantly tired, which means you’ll lose the speed and VO2max required to run a good 5k.
Targeting your training to one specific goal is crucial if you want to run your best on race day, but it’s also important to remember how the training will impact your overall running as well.
Let’s take the marathon for example.
The marathon requires you to (1) be very efficient at burning fat as a fuel source to; (2) conserve carbohydrates while running fast; (3) while doing so on very tired legs.
Now, let’s take a couple of workouts from popular marathon training programs = 6x 800m and 6x hill repeats. These workouts are what we call a VO2 max workout – you run at max speed for 2-4 minutes and then take an equal amount of rest in between intervals. Research demonstrates that an increase in VO2 max doesn’t increase fuel efficiency. Likewise, VO2 max intervals don’t specifically develop or improve your aerobic threshold (ability to run at marathon pace).
Therefore, a workout like 6x 800 or 6x hill repeats during marathon training has limited benefit to your specific fitness. Now, it’s okay to have a workout like this sprinkled into your plan two or three times over a 16 week training cycle to break the monotony and spice up the legs. It is also not a bad idea to help build your speed, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you are only training a couple of days each week. The majority of you training week really needs to be specific to your race. Remember the purpose of this type of training is to help build your speed only and not increase your aerobic threshold.
How do you fix this?
Luckily, this fix is pretty simple – just swap out those workouts that aren’t specific to the demands of your race distance for those that are. Specific marathon workouts get a little tricky because it’s impossible to simulate the distance and intensity of the marathon in one run without actually running a marathon. The marathon requires you to be efficient at burning fat as a fuel source to conserve carbohydrates while running on very tired legs. Therefore marathon specific workouts are often a combination of workouts throughout a week that build up fatigue and require you to run with low glycogen levels as opposed to one specific workout. If you are not sure what to replace this with speak to a running coach who will be happy to help you.
A better training session would be something like the 2x 6 mile, which was made famous by runners at the Hansons Running Shop Olympic Development Project. It involved a 1 mile (1.6 km) warm up followed by 2x 6 (10 km) miles @ 10-20 seconds faster than marathon pace with 10 minutes rest in between each set and is finished off with a 1 mile (1.6 km) cool down.
The purpose of this workout is to run at your threshold pace for a total of 12 miles (19 km), which will help you (1) increase your ability to burn fat as a fuel source when running at marathon pace; (2) practice running on tired legs; and (3) simulate the ‘dead leg’ feeling many marathoners experience after 18 miles (29 km). Likewise the goal of the 10 minute rest is to get your legs stiff, stagnant and uncomfortable to simulate how your legs will feel during the later stage of the marathon.
For most runners, not performing race specific workouts is the reason they feel like they are getting fitter and faster in training, yet fail to run their goal time on race day. Their training is getting them fitter, just not for their specific race. I have personally experienced this over the past few years that I have been undertaking endurance training and this is through no fault of my current running coach but mine as I have made all these fatal training plan mistakes.
FLAW 2: NOT ENOUGH EASY MILES
One of the most common problems that runners face when training is running the easy runs at the incorrect pace. I often hear comments like ‘how am I supposed to run fast on race day if I am running easy all the time?’ I am even guilty of saying this.
That’s because for most runners, about 80% of your training plan should be easy kilometres. But we tend to run closer to the moderate or hard for the majority of our training. This has a lot to do with runners ego.
These easy runs help target your aerobic system and aerobic development is the one true secret to training. It’s the key to unlocking your potential.
At the heart of aerobic and anaerobic training is the following science; to exercise, your body needs to break down sugar and convert it to glycogen, so it can be used as energy or fuel – like when you run easy miles with your friends and you can easily hold a conversation without feeling out of breath. Each time you breathe in, your body efficiently uses all the oxygen it needs to power the muscles, and you exhale out what your body does not need.
When the body has an adequate supply of oxygen for this process, we call it aerobic respiration. Aerobic exercise (also known as cardio) is physical exercise of low to high intensity that depends primarily on the aerobic energy-generating process. Aerobic literally means “relating to, involving, or requiring free oxygen”, and refers to the use of oxygen to adequately meet energy demands during exercise via aerobic metabolism. Generally, light-to-moderate intensity activities that are sufficiently supported by aerobic metabolism can be performed for extended periods of time.
When there is not enough oxygen, for example when you are running hard at the end of a 5k, this is called anaerobic respiration. Anaerobic exercise is short-lasting, high-intensity activity, where your body’s demand for oxygen exceeds the oxygen supply available. Anaerobic exercise relies on energy sources that are stored in the muscles and, unlike aerobic exercise, is not dependent on oxygen from (breathing) the air.
Each of these have difference effects on the body.
Sure, track workouts, VO2 Max sessions and tempo runs will increase your fitness and are still important to racing faster. However, nothing will consistently help you improve like developing the aerobic system.
Why is this?
In short, during any event longer than 5k, the aerobic system contributes more than 84% of the energy required to run the race. In the marathon, that number is 99%. That means to run your best at longer distances from 5k to the marathon (or longer) you need to fully develop your aerobic system.
So how do you develop the aerobic system? With slow, easy runs. And that’s why your plan should have lots of them!
Now take a look at your plan – are you doing the majority of your mileage at your easy pace? If not, here’s what you can do …
How do you fix this?
The fix here isn’t quite as easy as swapping our race specific workouts. My recommendation is to remove the intense workouts from your week until your ratio is 70 – 80% easy kilometres to 20 – 30% hard kilometres. That is of course unless your coach has you running a specific program, so it might be worthwhile checking with them as to why they have you running a higher ratio.
Add up your weekly mileage. Then add up the amount of mileage that is easy pace. Divide your total easy mileage by your total overall mileage. This number is the percentage you’re running easy.
I know removing hard and fast workouts seems to be a recipe for racing slower, but science proves otherwise. Recent research from Dr Stephen Seiler et al from the University of Agdar, Norway, backs up this methodology, finding that high volume; low intensity training stimulates greater training effects for recreational runners, in particular when using the 80/20 split of easy/hard training.
A conclusion backed up by the 2014 Salzburg study published in the Frontiers of Physiology; found that the concept of ‘polarized’ training demonstrated the greatest improvements. After a nine week training period, runners using the 80/20 easy/hard split had improved their ‘time to exhaustion’ by a whopping 17.4% and change in peak speed by 5.1%.
If you’d rather not remove workouts from your plan, another option is to add more easy mileage. Now, you might be scoffing at me, thinking if you add more kilometres you’ll likely end up injured. However, it is a common misconception among runners that increased mileage has a direct correlation to increase in injuries. This simply isn’t true. Mileage alone doesn’t cause injuries. Intensity, mechanics, strength and unintelligent training are far more likely to cause an injury than running easy mileage. Increase the mileage the smart way and you’ll be totally fine.
FLAW 3: NO ANCILLARY WORK (STRENGTH OR CROSS TRAINING) INTEGRATED INTO YOUR PLAN
A training plan is more than just the miles you run and the workouts you perform. It should include everything you need to make you a better runner. Ancillary work, like strength training and cross training, can help keep you healthy and make you a better runner – but not if they are just thrown on top of your running plan without regard for intensity, the phase of your training plan, and your specific weaknesses. For example, the mistake many runners make is performing their strength workouts on their easy, recovery or off days. The thinking behind this makes sense – you’re the most tired after hard workouts, so why push yourself even more by adding strength work on these days? But, we’re forgetting about the recovery aspect and the training plan as a whole.
If you were to perform harder strength workouts, especially anything that involves the lower body, on your easy running day the added stress and shortened total recovery time between workouts would detract from your body’s recovery ability. That’s why a good strength training plan needs to be tightly integrated into your running plan. Otherwise, you might be doing more harm than good.
Some good exercises that suit running and don’t cost a lot of money or require specific equipment from a gym are as follows:
- Planks – Prop yourself up on your elbows with your feet slightly apart. Make sure your body is aligned, your abdominal muscles are tight, and shoulders are directly above the elbows and down and back, not hunched up. Hold this position for 45 seconds to one minute. Gradually add time as your core gets stronger.
- Variations include – side planks to target the obliques; single leg planks; spider planks; mountain climber planks; and supine planks
- Repetitions – 3 to 5
- Muscles worked – core, lower back and shoulders
- Russian Twist – Lie on your back with your upper legs perpendicular to the floor and your knees bent 90-degrees. Without changing the bend in your hips or knees, lower your legs to the left side of your body while keeping your shoulders in contact with the floor. Lift them back to the starting position, and repeat to the right side of your body. That’s one repetition.
- Modification – to make harder, keep your legs straight
- Repetitions – 10 to 12
- Muscles worked – core
- Scorpion – Get into push up position but with your feet on a bench. Raise your right knee toward your left shoulder as you rotate your hips up and to the left as far as you can. Then reverse directions, rotating your hips up and to the right, and try to touch your right foot to the back of your left shoulder (you won’t be able to do it). That’s one repetition. Continue for 30 seconds with your right leg, then switch legs.
- Modifications – to make it easier, do step one of the exercise, twisting in just one direction. To make it harder, instead of putting your feet on a bench, do the exercise with your shins on a stability ball.
- Repetitions – As many as you can in 30 seconds
- Muscles worked – Shoulders, Core
- Back Extensions – Lie facedown on a stability ball with your feet spread wide for balance. Your elbows should be bent with your hands lightly touching the ground for initial support.
- Squeeze your glutes and lift your torso up until your body forms a straight line. As you lift your torso, allow your hands to come off the ground, keeping your elbows bent. Extend your arms overhead. Hold for one or two seconds. Release your arms and then your torso back down to the start position. That’s one rep. Aim for 10-12. No stability ball? You can do the movement on an exercise mat: Raise your thighs and arms off the ground while your torso stays in contact with the ground.
- Modifications – to make it harder, hold light dumbbells or some books if you don’t have access to dumbbells
- Repetitions – 10 to 12
- Muscles worked – lower back, glutes, middle back, shoulders
- Squat to Overhead Press – Hold the kettlebell (or some other form of weight if you don’t have a kettlebell) with both hands in front of your chest. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Push your hips back, and lower your body into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Press the kettlebell above your head, and as you stand back up, return the kettlebell to the original position.
- Modifications – Do the squat without the overhead raise by just keeping the kettlebell in the centre chest position for the duration of the exercise.
- Repetitions – 10 to 12
- Muscles worked – Glutes, quads, hamstrings, lower back, upper back, shoulders
- Overhead Forward Lunge – Hold a pair of dumbbells (or some other form of weight if you don’t have a dumbbells) straight above your shoulders, with your arms straight and elbows locked. Step forward with your left leg, and lower your body until your front knee is bent 90 degrees. Return to the starting position, and repeat with your right leg. That’s one repetition.
- Modifications – to make it easier, hold dumbbells at shoulder level
- Repetitions – 6 to 8 (each leg)
- Muscles worked – Quads, hamstrings, glutes, shoulders, core
- Stability Ball Jack-knife – Get into push up position but instead of placing your feet on the floor, rest your shins on a stability ball. Pull the stability ball toward your chest by raising your hips and rounding your back as you roll the ball forward with your feet. (if you don’t have access to a stability ball you can use any other sports ball such as a basketball or volleyball)
- Modification – To make it easier, pull your knees as close as you can to your chest without lifting your hips into the air, and return to the starting position.
- Repetitions – 10 to 12
- Muscles worked – Shoulders, core
- Stability Ball Leg Curl – Lie on your back on the floor, and place your calves on a stability ball. Extend your arms to your sides to help support and balance your body. Push your hips up so that your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Without allowing your hips to sag (keep with your body at all times), roll the ball as close as you can to your hips by bending your knees and pulling your heels toward you. (if you don’t have access to a stability ball you can use any other sports ball such as a basketball or volleyball)
- Modifications – To make it easier, only do steps one and two, and skip the leg curl. To make it harder, do the exercise with just one leg, holding the other leg in the air above your hips.
- Repetitions – 6 to 8
- Muscles worked – hamstrings, glutes, core
- Rotational Shoulder Press – Stand holding a pair of dumbbells just outside your shoulders, your palms facing each other. Press the dumbbells overhead as you rotate to your left. Lower the dumbbells as you rotate back to the centre, then rotate to the right as you press the weights upward again. That’s one repetition.
- Modification – to make it easier, do half of the repetitions without the rotations.
- Repetitions – 6 to 8
- Muscles worked – shoulders, triceps, core
- Alternating Row – Hold a pair of dumbbells (or any other weight available) at arm’s length in front of you, palms facing your thighs. Keeping your back naturally arched, bend at the hips and lower your torso until it’s nearly parallel to the floor. Keep your arms straight as you bend your hips so that the dumbbells hang straight down. Pull the dumbbell in your left hand by bending your elbow and raising your upper arm toward the middle of your back. Lower and repeat with your right arm. That’s one repetition.
- Modification – To make it easier, perform the move with both hands at once (using both hands requires less core stability).
- Repetitions – 10 to 12
- Muscles worked – middle back, biceps, core
- Calf exercises
- Skipping – Jumping rope builds muscle while providing a cardiovascular workout. According to Muscle and Fitness magazine, the main muscle you work in a jump rope routine is your calf, but the exercise conditions most major muscle groups. Start by jumping rope with both feet for one minute. Work your way up to three minutes. Mix up your jump rope workout by trying crossovers and double passes.
- Bounding on single leg – Stand on your right leg. Jump up, driving your left knee up. Use your arms to help propel you forward. Continue to jump forward, aiming to spend a very short time on the ground. Jump until you can’t maintain speed or distance, or no longer than 20 seconds. Repeat on the other leg.
- Next level: Try the triple tuck jump: Do three single-leg bounds on one leg, then jump to bring that knee to your chest. Land softly, and immediately perform another series of three bounds on the same leg. Repeat on the other leg.
- Straight leg running –
- Step 1: Find a flat stretch of road, trail or grass with trustworthy footing.
- Step 2:Keeping your legs straight and your ankles dorsiflexed (toes pointing upward), run forward for 50 to 75 meters, landing on your mid-foot while not allowing your feet to come too high off the ground. Keep your torso straight, swing your arms to build speed and momentum, and focus on running with a quick turnover.
- Step 3:Following your first repetition, recover for 30 seconds before heading back in the opposite direction. Perform two 50-meter reps, progressing to four as you build coordination.
Do these drills twice a week after easy runs and as part of a comprehensive warm-up routine before workouts and races.
- Calf presses – Find a step 4 inches off the ground. Stand with the back half of your foot hanging off the step. Lower your heels 2 inches. Press up so that you are standing on the balls of your feet. Repeat 15 to 20 times to complete one set. Do two sets to complete the exercise. Personal trainer James “Flex” Lewis recommends pointing toes in to isolate the inner calf and pointing toes out to isolate the outer calf.
- Lateral jumps – Lower slightly into a squat position and quickly jump to your left side, aiming to cover as much distance as possible. Land softly on your left foot and immediately jump to the right side. Continue until you cannot maintain speed or distance, or no longer than 20 seconds.
- Power Mountain Climbers – Assume a push up position. Bracing your core, keep your upper body rigid while you alternate driving each knee forward as quickly as possible. Focus on keeping your core stable throughout the movement. Stop when speed decreases, or no longer than 20 seconds.
How do you fix this?
If you’re currently working from a plan that does not specifically assign you ancillary work in addition to running kilometres, my recommendation is to add to your training in the following way…
- Your hardest, most running specific strength routines (like leg workouts) after your hardest workouts
- Your medium effort routines (like basic core or hip routines) on your regular running days
- Any preventative routines on your off or recovery days
I know that’s still even a little general, but it’s difficult to get specific without knowing your experience level or what distance you’re training for. If you do want something more specific and created for you, I would suggest speaking with a Personal Trainer at your local gym. If you have a running coach make sure the Personal Trainer liaises with your coach to ensure the strength training program supports your running plan. That way you get an exact routine prescribed to you based on your race distance and experience level added to your plan on the correct days.
I hope this was a great guide to help you better understand the current plan you’re using and to help tweak it to better suit some of the other challenges I know a lot of runners face when it comes to their training plan and race day. It has helped me to refocus on my own training plan and the weaknesses in my own training.
If you are interested in getting something customized to you and your running goals, we do have training plans available, with coaching at an affordable cost. Whether you are a Master’s runner tired of working with ‘spreadsheet’ training plans that don’t take into account you’re not 25 years old anymore or a beginner who is trying to run their first marathon and don’t know where to start, we can help you out with your own unique plan. Just send me a personal message through Instagram or Facebook @Austgrizz_Running
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