Intelligent and Comprehensive Training for Distance Runners


The running mentality lends itself to extremes. But the motto “Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess,” ultimately leads to disaster. To fulfill your potential as a runner, you either need a seasoned coach who can prescribe and monitor your training, or to learn to design your own well-balanced training programs.

In structuring your training program, you should abide by the following five principles:

1. Your body adapts specifically to the stresses of training.
2. Physiological adaptations take time.
3. Your body can only adapt positively to moderate increases in training load.
4. Alternate hard training days with recovery.
5. You are an experiment of one.

Specificity of training
To reach your potential as a distance runner, you need to develop a variety of key attributes, including your endurance base, lactate threshold, maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max), basic speed, and running technique. During your marathon training, you likely focussed only on improving your endurance base, while virtually ignoring the other necessary ingredients for success. That was the appropriate strategy, given a specific goal (finishing the marathon) and a limited time-frame. Your body adapts specifically, however, to the types of training that you do, so when you were putting in your long runs you were doing little to improve your VO2 max, speed, or running technique. To maximize your running performance, you need to incorporate each of these components into your training program in the right balance for you.

Physiological adaptations take time
Your body adapts to the stresses of training, but this process takes time. Physiological adaptations occur in their own time, and while you can fine-tune your training to optimize the process, you cannot rush Mother Nature. Adaptations in your muscles, such as increased capillarization, occur gradually over months and years. Although you may have gotten away with quickly scaling up your training to complete a marathon, now you need to think longer term. Be patient. The minimum amount of time to begin to see an improvement from training is about 6 weeks. Do not be discouraged if you do not notice immediate improvements in your running.

Increase your training load gradually
Your training load is a combination of your training distance, the intensity of your training, and the number of runs you do each week (your training frequency). Your body can only adapt positively to moderate increases in training load in a short period of time. For example, over a few years you can double or even triple your running mileage, but increasing mileage too much at once is almost certain to lead to injury, illness, or over-tiredness. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules for increasing your training (see “you are an experiment of one” below), it is best to increase only your training distance or intensity or frequency in any one week. A slow steady progression will pay greater dividends in your long-term running performance than an impetuous rush into high mileage and/or high-intensity training.

Alternate hard training days with recovery
With all of the components of running success to fit into your training program, it is tempting to train hard day-after-day. Your body can only handle a limited amount of hard training, however, and will improve most quickly if given a chance to recover. When you train hard you provide the stimulus to progress your fitness but when you recover you allow your body to adapt positively and improve. The classic pattern of training is to alternate a hard day with an easy day or rest day. Alternatively, you can do 2 hard training days in a row, but be sure to follow this with 2 or more recovery days. Failure to follow this guideline is a well-worn path to injury and overtraining.

You are an experiment of one
Every runner responds uniquely to training. What may be too much for your training partner, may be just right for you. Conversely, a program that works for your training partner may run you into the ground. Your ability to respond positively to training depends on your genetics (your natural predisposition to adapt to training), your training history (how much and what types of training you have done in the past), your general health, your injury history, and your lifestyle (diet, sleep pattern, and the other stresses in your life). In developing your training program, pay attention to how you respond to training and remember that you are an experiment of one.

(This column originally appeared in Running Times Magazine.)