Enjoy the training
It's simple really. For most runners, >95% of all the running we do is training. So enjoy the training. My number one rule when I write a training plan is "Write something that the person wants to do, can do, and enjoys doing". If you don't want to do sprints, then I don't want to make you run sprints. If you don't want to be a continuous runner, then I'm perfectly happy writing you an exclusively run/walk plan. If you don't want to run more than 30 min on a weekday, then I'll write the best plan I can come up with based on that criteria. I want you to enjoy running as much as I do. Which means making it fun, exciting, sometimes challenging, and hopefully always fruitful.
The Victory Lap
I view race day as the victory lap of training. It's not the test, nor a final exam of sorts. It's the celebration of getting through another training cycle and continuing to better yourself. When race day comes up, you'll give your best. And sometimes that'll result in achieving the goal you set out for yourself. But sometimes it won't. And that's ok. There are a myriad of reasons why race day may not go your way. As I say, "No one run defines a training cycle, and similarly no one race defines a runner." Just because you have a bad race doesn't mean all the training was for naught. If you've done the best you can on race day, then that's all you can ever ask of yourself. On another day, you may have been faster. On a different day, maybe slower. But on that particular day, you did the best you could. Training and the fitness gains from training don't suddenly disappear because we have a tough race. It's tough races, that remind us to cherish the ones that go well. It makes the victories of the victory lap taste that much sweeter. Continue to build on those fitness gains, and you'll achieve your goal. Consistency over days, weeks, months, and years is how you continue to improve your performance. So when it comes to the end of the training plan celebrate the achievement of another training cycle with a victory lap around the race course. You've done it. Congrats!
Train Slow to Race Fast
I didn't come up with the concept. I first read about the idea of doing mostly slow running as a predominant portion of all the training from Stephen Seiler's 2009 paper "Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance: the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training" (Sportscience 13, 32-53, 2009) (link). In this paper, Seiler gives ample evidence of the type of training regimens many of the elite athletes do from multiple different disciplines. What was of most interest was the concept of doing 80% of the training at an "easy" pace (defined by him as anything slower than lactate threshold) and only 20% of training done at or faster than lactate threshold. This polarization of training (having both faster paces, counterbalanced with much slower pacing done at longer durations) was shown to have a significant number of potential benefits (between the adjustment of actual pacing and the durations while holding those paces). Since I had spent years of my recreational time training without any serious attention to pace (always focused on the mileage and a "PR the day" type mindset), I was ready to attempt a new mindset in the hopes it would yield the desired outcome I was looking for.
With that being said, one of the first questions I always get asked when starting the Q/A process with a new customer is, "You want me to run how slow?" No matter if it's a 7:00 min/mile marathoner or a 15:00 min/mile marathoner, the question always comes up. The common follow-up to their questions from them is usually, "I can run faster, so why do you want me to run slower." I can point to ample evidence in the corner of the concept of 80/20 that would sometimes take hours to go through, but many time it just takes a link to prior testimonials from the concept and 5 minutes later they're sold. They're still skeptical, but once you're through your first training cycle, you'll likely understand better the benefits come race day.
Train where you are, not where you want to be.
Most runners set goals for themselves. Whether that is a new distance or a faster time. But often I see runners extend themselves with the pacing too far. What was once marathon tempo pace becomes their 10k pace. But it's my belief that training where you are (with current fitness physiological pacing) is the best long term strategy. You'll make gains, and potentially can stay injury free for longer. You're working at appropriate paces, rather than paces of where you want to be. I made this image to illustrate this concept.
Let's say "current" is what we believe to be your current fitness pacing spectrum. Let's say that you have a new goal of lowering your half marathon time by 5 minutes. Some may say, well let's type in your new goal half marathon pace and come up with a new pacing scheme. This is where I'd argue you've chosen a "too fast" pacing spectrum. So what happens? Well potentially what was suppose to be "easy" is now a mixture of "easy" and "long". That's not a huge deal. You've made the "easy" just slightly harder, but things are still falling into those large zones of pacing at the slower end of the spectrum. But as you move further down the pacing spectrum you start to see issues. What was once your "10k" pace is now your "HM pace" for the purpose of workouts. So while you limited the 10k workouts to 20 min a single bout and having recovery intervals of 1 min for every 5 min of running, suddenly you're choosing to follow the HM rules for a workout at that same intensity. So instead of a 5:1, now suddenly you're looking at a duration cap of 60 minutes with no required rest breaks. That's a huge difference between how your body will perceive these workouts. In one case, you're making sure you don't do more than 20 min, but in the other case, you're suddenly allowing yourself to go all the way to 60 min. Could you complete the workout? It's certainly possible. But how your body reacts, adapts, and recovers from that workout is likely going to be completely different than was intended when following a training plan. You'll start to fall into a pattern where you'll always be trying to recover from the workout instead of reaping the benefits of it. It's what I call, "Don't Survive the Training, Thrive because of it". Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
On the opposite end, you can see that little harm will be done if you train just slightly too slow. So I always try to impress upon my runners, train where you are and not necessarily where you want to be. With consistent training, you'll get where you want to be. A runner who can put in lots of good efforts without getting injured can become consistent and make consistent gains. But a runner who is striving beyond their current fitness and consistently ends up injured is likely to stunt their improvement over time.
Relative Current Fitness Pacing * Duration = Miles
The idea came from reading a research paper by Billat 2001, "Interval Training for Performance: A Scientific and Empirical Practice Special Recommendations for Middle- and Long-Distance Running. Part I: Aerobic Interval Training" (Sports Med 2001; 31 (1): 13-31). Instead of always focusing on the mileage of a training run, maybe paying attention to the duration was more pivotal. From the concept of 80/20, it had already been impressed upon me how important the pace of a training was, but Billat's paper underlined the history of training concepts since the 1900s. What became apparent in reading this paper was that the duration of holding certain paces mattered far more than the mileage at them.
It's when I started to combine the idea of relative current fitness pacing * duration = mileage it became more clear to me. I came up with the following thought experiment:
To me, there are two types of impressive (and neither is necessarily more impressive than the other). My basis for my opinion is the following.
1. I believe in perception of effort. The harder you run the faster you go. But everyone's 75% is equal to everyone else's 75% when relating perception of effort.
2. I believe that time spent running is an important factor, more so than mileage.
3. Mileage is a function of perceived effort x time. If you run faster (effort), or longer (time), then you increase your mileage.
We have two people standing next to each other. I tell them both to run at 75% effort for 90 minutes. They both complete the workout.
Person A - 75% effort at 90 minutes
Person B - 75% effort at 90 minutes
Based on the information given, they are equal.
Person A ran 10 miles
Person B ran 5 miles
But when I add the mileage that each runner has done, instantly most people assume that person A did more of a workout. If we isolate this workout in a bubble and ignore the other aspects of the training plan, then it would be my opinion that both of these runners completed a similar workout. They would receive similar benefits from this workout and would be seen by their bodies to be respectively as difficult.
This idea is reinforced by the Google Chrome plug-in Elevate (which is available for free to all Strava users). To boil it down simply, the duration of a workout and the time spent at certain HR levels (a surrogate for effort) demonstrates the "training load" from an individual workout. So it's my belief that if both runners inputted their workout into Elevate both runners would receive the same "score" for the workout (assuming the terrain environment, previous training history, etc. was the same). It's saying in a bubble, the mileage is simply a function of the duration of a training run and the relative current fitness pacing.
The 150 min max (or 180 min max)
Probably no one single core philosophy gets more pushback than this concept. The question usually starts with, "You want me to run how slow?" And then moves to, "How can I run X goal distance if you limit my longest training run to Y?". I get it. But as I explained, I'm not focused on the mileage of a workout. I'm focused on the duration. So when training for a marathon, some runners may find that their current fitness relative pacing yields 20 mile workouts at the end of the training plan. But for others, they may find that doing a similar duration workout at a similar intensity only yields 12 miles. Is it really possible to run a marathon with a 12 mile long run as the longest training run? So this does take a leap of faith for many. But if you follow the core philosophies laid out above, you can see where this one is derived from.
The idea of maxing a long run at 150 min (or 180 min for run/walkers) is born from the idea of balance. We've balanced the pacing across the training plan with the concept of 80/20. We've balanced the plan with current fitness relative pacing based on recent training/races. We've balanced the plan based on the duration of the exercise more than the mileage it accumulates. From there, it's about balancing the "Long Run" to make sure that it isn't the whole intent of the training plan. I always like to tell my runners, "No one run defines the training plan. It's the cumulative effect of all of the training from beginning to end that yields the desired result on race day".
So I like to limit the long run to 150 min or less so that you're prepared for that next workout in short time. Lots of intermediate bouts of exercise rather than focusing on one large effort that takes a significant amount of time to recover from. In addition to the timeframe limit, I aim to keep the total amount of mileage from the "long run" to be no more than 30% of the total weekly mileage. My goal is to put it between 25-30% of the total week. But sometimes that just isn't possible based on a person's schedule. So I try and make workarounds to make it work for everyone involved.
Wouldn't it be nice to not have to put in a 3-4-5 hr training run if you didn't have to? I won't mence words though. Just because I reduce the training duration of the "long run" doesn't make my plans easy. But they are effective. Check out the testimonials if you don't believe me. I've got plenty of examples of runners maxing out at 150 min in a long run, and yet still achieving great race results. Try a marathoner who after 11 attempts prior was finally able to break the sub-4 barrier. And all it took was a focus on the rest of the training more than a single run per week. Or a few run/walkers who limited themselves to 11-13 miles max and yet on race day completed a marathon in precisely the time we thought and did so with lots of energy and minimal soreness afterwards.
This is one of those core philosophies where it's going to take a leap of faith by the user. Trust that I do indeed have your best intentions in mind when I write the plan. I want you to succeed. I want you to meet your goals. And I try and do everything I can when I write the plan to maximize your potential on race day.
Rule of Specificity
The concept is simple. Once you've settled on a goal distance, then we want to focus all of the training around that distance. And as race day approaches we want to specialize the training around it. So if you plan to do a marathon, then we'll start with paces slower and faster than it and as the big day gets closer, the paces meet in the middle to do more and more of goal pace. Same goes with a 5k. We'll start with pacing that's faster and slower than 5k pace. As time moves along in the training, then the pacing structure gets closer and closer to goal pace. Doing this maximizes your gains and necessary tools you'll need when race day comes up.
Memorize the Effort
Lastly the memorization of effort. You're going to get several goal paces for different workouts. You'll also have a calculator that you can adjust pace goals based on the temperature and dew point of the current conditions for that workout. But something I like to drive home to all my runners is memorizing the effort of a run. I feel that one's natural perception of effort is the gold standard for pacing. But for many people it takes time to "memorize" what "easy" actually feels like. If left on one's own, then many people gravitate towards lactate threshold pace. So, I always say the paces scheduled are the cap. You are free to go slower if the effort dictates it. But I'd always recommend not pushing the pace faster than originally scheduled.
So to help assist in honing this skill, I schedule training runs known as "blind runs". You are to only use your watch/treadmill as a guide to new intervals or distance completed. However, you may not use the watch as a means to pace yourself. Your goal on these days is to try and match the effort needed to run this pace. These are important exercises to teach your body to become more intune with your internal GPS. So during non-blind days always be cognizant of memorizing what the effort feels like. What does easy feel like? What does marathon tempo feel like? Over time you'll build a data bank of memories from which you can draw on for these blind running days. The end results of the blind runs are neither inherently good or bad, but an assessment of your internal GPS. For a treadmill blind run, try covering the treadmill console with a towel and pushing up and down on the pace based on feeling (if possible). Ideally blind runs are done outside to get the "feeling" of effort.
Where this becomes super useful is on race day. Things will happen during racing. The temp might increase, the sun might come out from behind the clouds, etc. So being able to reassess effort during the middle of a run/race is a really useful skill. You can adapt to the environment or whatever conditions are given to you to settle into a pace that feels right. Irrespective of goal pace or whatever pre-planned ideas, you can adjust and succeed on race day. Give your best effort on that day. Tomorrow might have been a better race time, and yesterday might have been a worse time. Just give the best effort on that day, and that's all you can ever ask of yourself. Blind running and memorizing the effort can help with this.
Want to know more?
Check out the Blog to find more information about these and other topics. One of the most important is likely the "How do I write a custom training plan?" post and it explains the process from my end from beginning to end.