Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Developing An Elite Marathoner: Traditional Method vs Road Less Traveled

Alana Hadley winning the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in 2:38:34

There are 2 primary ways to approach improving fitness in distance running:

Intensive Training:  this is when you work to improve/increase the pace or intensity at which they can train.  For example, we might do a workout of 8 x 800 meters @ 2:40 avg. and gradually over time work intensively to get that down to 8 x 800 meters @ 2:30 avg. 

Extensive Training:  this is when you work to improve/increase the distance you can cover either in a workout on total training capacity.  For example, we might do a 4 mile tempo run at 5:30 per mile and gradually over time work to increase the distance we can hold that 5:30 tempo pace to 6 miles.

Both of these methods can be very effective and are completely valid ways to approach training, and over the course of a training cycle a coach may even use both methods to train the same runner depending on the individual’s situation.  

I start off with this review of these 2 training methods because, when looked at on a macro level, it is at the heart of the differences between 2 methods of developing elite marathon runners.  

Traditional Method vs. The Road Less Traveled
With the recent 2:38:34 marathon performance by my daughter Alana Hadley to win the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, in tough weather conditions, at just 17 years of age, more people have been wondering about the non-traditional path she is on in her journey to becoming an elite marathoner.  So I wanted to write a blog to explain in part the path she is following and how it differs from the traditional model.

Traditionally in the United States, and much of the world, the path a woman runner would take to becoming an elite marathoner would look something like this: 

Traditional Method
-  Running begins in a youth program and/or a middle or high school team.  The races distance would range from the 800 to 3200 meters on the track and 3k to 5k in cross country.  The focus would be on VO2 Max development and ability to race well at these middle distance events. 

-  If talented enough the runner would go on to compete in collegiate running with a race range from 4k to 6k in cross country and the 1500 meters to 5k in indoor track and from 1500 to 10,000 meters in outdoor track.  Training would be focused on racing well in these middle distance (1500-3k) to shorter distance (5k-10k) events. 

-  Then if the runner had shown the talent and a good disposition for the longer events after their collegiate career they would gradually move to the roads and the longer distances - 10k to half marathon and eventually the marathon distance.  Given the marathon is over 4x the distance they ever raced in college (at least in D-I) than they would spend multiple years in extensive training building up their mileage and training capacity to handle the longer race distance. 

-  If they had enough initial success they could have a career as an elite marathoner
At a macro level the first 2 steps in this process, which take between 6 and 10 years, are largely intensive in focus as the race distances don’t change much and so the focus is on the ability to do the workouts involved faster and faster each year.   It is only for several years post collegiately that the focus shifts to being extensive in nature from a cycle to cycle and year to year basis as they significantly move up in race distance.  Until finally becoming intensive in nature again once work capacity has been increased to what is necessary for an elite marathoner.

The Road Less Traveled
The path that Alana is taking differs from this traditional path substantially.  We’ll call it the “Road Less Traveled”. 

On the “Road Less Traveled”, the focus has been on extensive training first, gradually and slowly building to the capacity level of an elite marathoner, and then it shifts to intensive in focus as the workout length no longer change and the focus is on doing them faster and faster each training cycle. 
Let’s take a closer look how this has played out in Alana’s case thus far:

Alana began running on a semi-regular basis as a 6 yr old when she decided she wanted to run a local 5k with her mother and from there her progression over the next few years went like this:

Age 6:  2-3 runs per week for a weekly total of 4 to 8 miles a week – all runs easy in nature
Age 7:  3-4 runs per week for a weekly total of 8 to 15 miles a week – all runs easy in nature
Age 8:  4-5 runs per week for a weekly total of 15 to 25 miles a week – all runs easy with an occasional fartlek game
Age 9:  5-6 runs per week for a weekly total of 25-35 miles a week – most runs easy with an occasional fartlek or easy tempo run
Age 10:  7 runs per week for a weekly total of 35-45 miles a week – mostly easy runs with periodic fartlek speed work, moderate tempo runs and modest long runs 
Age 11:  7 runs per week for a weekly total of 45-55 miles a week – balanced program that includes easy runs, speed workouts, tempo runs and modest long runs
Age 12:  7 runs per week for a weekly total of 55-65 miles a week – balanced program that includes easy runs, speed workouts, tempo run and modest long runs
Age 13:  8-9 runs per week for a weekly total of 65-75 miles a week - balanced program that includes easy runs, speed workouts, tempo run and modest long runs

After this point Alana had progressed to 17:09 in the 5k and we had an early decision to make.  Her mileage level and workout length was plenty good for the distances raced in high school and probably college as well.  After working extensively to this point, slowly building her work capacity, does she now switch over to an intensive focus or does she continue to work extensively and build more work capacity.  Based on her natural talents, passions and race preferences it was decided to continue building work capacity and look towards a focus on the longer race distances. 

Age 14:  10-11 runs per week for a weekly total of 75-85 miles a week - balanced program that includes easy runs, speed workouts, tempo run and modest long runs
Age 15:  11-12 runs per week for a weekly total of 85-95 miles a week - balanced program that includes easy runs, speed workouts, tempo run and modest long runs
Age 16:  13 runs per week for a weekly total of 95-105 miles a week – balanced program that includes easy runs, speed workouts, tempo run and modest long runs
Age 17:  13 runs per week for a weekly total of 105-120 miles a week balanced program that includes easy runs, speed workouts, tempo run and modest long runs.

During this build–up over 11 years, Alana worked in roughly 6 month training cycles with a small increase in capacity (mileage and workout length) each cycle – allowing 6 months to adapt and gain the benefits from each small increase in capacity (i.e. roughly 5 miles weekly increase in mileage once per 6 months) before adding again.  So on a micro-level within each training cycle she would work intensively, working to improve her paces on workouts, before increasing her capacity again as she moved to the next cycle (extensive training on a macro-level – cycle to cycle and year to year). 

So what you had was a 17 year old that had built the full work capacity of an elite level marathoner, but with the increase in capacity happening very slowly and carefully over an 11 year period, the capacity was well absorbed with no issues at all in growth, bone density, physical maturation (i.e. puberty), and with only 1 moderate injury in 11 yrs of running.  

Now that an elite level capacity has been reached the focus has switched to intensive training, as her workout lengths and capacity no longer need to be increased. So in each successive training cycle her improvements will focus on increases in quality.   

At a macro-level the Traditional method and the “Road Less Traveled” are flip flopped.  The traditional method largely works intensively early on and extensively later on and the “Road Less Traveled” works extensively early on and intensively later on. 

So what has the results been so far in the Road Less Traveled?  Much as one might expect in this scenario, there was very good progress early on in shorter distance (5k) race times and then later on less progress in shorter distance times but significant progress in capacity at the longer distances.  Such is the nature of extensive training. 

In the past year Alana has reached the end of her extensive period of development, where her workouts are of the ultimate length needed for an elite marathon runner.  The second training cycle of 2014 (which she just completed) was the first in which there was no increase in workout length and thus marked the beginning of the intensive phase of her development.  The initial results from this first cycle in the intensive phase of her development was an improvement of 3.5 minutes in her marathon time to 2:38 and an improvement that was accomplished in significantly more challenging weather conditions.  The intensive phase of her development is truly off to a great start.

In general, the longer someone works in a certain method (intensive or extensive training) the less the improvement seen from period to period.  There is just less incremental fitness gains to be made from moving from 105 miles to 115 miles a week in training (an extensive increase) just as a runner will see less improvement in their 8th consecutive cycle of doing the same 12 x 400 speed workout (intensive training).

So what one would expect to see now for Alana is that she will continue to see good improvements moving forward for the next several years as she switches focus from the extensive phase to the intensive phase of her development.  Likely she will see a several minute improvement each marathon cycle for the next few years at least taking her down from her current level of national class performer into world class performer territory.  The results of the first cycle in this new phase (3.5 min improvement) seems to bare that out so far, as expected.

One of the benefits that we see from the Road Less Traveled versus the Traditional method is there seems to be less likelihood of injury as long as increases are kept small and built in gradually, as less intensity and less racing is emphasized which are items that seem to produce injuries in many young runners.  While there has been anticipated small issues related to adapting habits to new training levels and body growth, Alana has only had 1 significant injury (a stress reaction) in her 11 yrs of training, an incredible streak of durability in any sport.

A few important notes and observations:

  • When increasing capacity at a young age it is important that increases be kept small and there be significant time allowed for the body to full absorb and adapt to that new capacity level before another change is made.  Consistency is a key to this as the body adapts best to what it does consistently.  Alana took 11 yrs to reach elite marathoner training capacity, trying to reach that capacity level much quicker than that in a young runner would likely lead to problems. You are always better off increasing too slowly than too quickly.
  • Proper attention needs to be paid to nutrition, namely in eating enough calories and getting enough of the essential vitamins and minerals needed.  We have been very careful to ensure that Alana eats enough balanced calories for the volume of training she is doing and also she takes calcium, vitamin D and iron supplements in a regular basis.  We have blood work done twice a year to ensure her levels stay adequate and appropriate. Many, many runners (especially young female runners) have been side-lined with problems because of falling short in this area.  Please, please, please address this issue with any young runner you work with.
  • This slow build up in work capacity is a great opportunity to take the time to teach the runner good habits in terms of how to execute different forms of training, and the life style habits conducive to good running and training. 
  • Improvements, especially in young runners, are never linear. They will come in bursts and plateaus.  Growth spurts, and puberty will cause delays, changes and even occasional regression in performance and improvements.  Consistency and patience is your best ally in these times.  The body will adapt best to what it does consistently and progress will begin again with time and patience.  Keep the big picture in mind and help the runner keep it in mind as well.  
  • Whichever path you follow, safeguarding the passion for the sport should be the number 1 concern of a coach or parent.  We want a young runner to be a runner for life.   
  • While rare it is not unheard of for a elite marathoner to get started in the event as a teenager.  Uta Pippig (Germany), one of the top marathoners in the world in the early to mid 1990's, started seriously racing marathons as a teenager clocking a 2:36 at age 19.  Uta went on to win 3 Boston Marathons, 3 Berlin Marathons, 1 NYC Marathon, compete in 2 Olympic Games and run her personal best of 2:21 at age 28.  In the U.S. Cathy O'Brien was 9th in the 1984 U.S. Olympics Marathon Trials as a 16 yr old before going on to make the U.S. Olympic team in the event in 1988 and 1992. 

Note:  I did not write this blog entry to promote the path Alana has taken but rather to explain it and contrast it to the traditional method.  I don't think the Road Less Travel would be advisable for many young runners (probably far less than 10%), but I absolutely believe (as she does) that it is physiologically sound and is the right path for her, and at the end that is what it is all about, finding the right path for you as an individual.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

Never Let A Tool Become A Driver

The stress and recover principle is at the heart of our training as distance runners.  The purpose of a stress workout is to stress certain systems of the body in such a way as to cause desired adaptations to take place.  In other words to become fitter in a desired way.  The purpose of a recovery run is to allow the body to recover from a stress workout while maintaining or advancing cardiovascular fitness. 

Note that I never say the word pace or time in either definition.  

I love math more than most, and am an analyst by nature, and so I have fun working through all the formulas and determining the optimal paces for workouts and runs based on the science behind the sport.  But sometimes knowing the theoretical optimal pace does not necessarily help us, and in fact can hurt us by putting extra pressure on us that can detract from our performance in the workout or race.

I suggest the best way to do any run is to start off and find the rhythm and effort level that feels right for that type of run/workout.  Then after a little while, once you have settled in, check your watch as a feedback tool to verify you are somewhere in the general desired range or where you thought you were.

There are many factors that can effect the optimal pace range on any given day, so by having a good feel for and knowing the rhythm of a desired workout, you can often be better assured of meeting the goal of the day, whether it be to stress the body or allow it to recover.  Given this I am in the process of making a change as a coach and including more talk about the desired feel of a workout in my notes to my runners and only including pace ranges as a secondary note that they can use as a feedback tool, not as a driver of the workout.  

What you want to stay away from is being obsessed with your watch.  Checking your time/pace multiple times per mile is not healthy mentally or physically. Hitting a certain time/pace does not assure the optimal outcome for the run, and it can be a dangerous crutch that can be disastrous if ever it is not available or if it malfunctions (which happens often).  

Keep your eye on the goal of run, and no that does not usually mean a specific time/pace, but rather honoring the stress and recover principle.  If your workout for the day is a 5 mile tempo run, and you go out and run it at a good hard, smooth effort, working hard but keeping it controlled and manageable, you will have gotten the desired benefits from that workout regardless of what your watch says.  Similarly, if you have an easy 5 mile recovery run planned in order to recover from the stress workout you did the day or 2 before, and you go out and keep it comfortable and relaxed and never feel like you are pushing it then you will have accomplished the purpose of that run, regardless of what your watch says.  

What you use the watch for on these runs is feedback tools to help you fine tune and better understand those efforts and feel over time, and to monitor and track progress and to adapt the training plan.  It needs to be a tool to enhance training, not a driver that dictates it.   

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

5 Great Marathon Workouts

Here are 5 great marathon workouts to have in your marathon training program:

1) Speed: 16 x 600 meters @ GMP - 12% w 200 meter jog recovery

2) Speed-Strength:  8 x mile @ GMP - 8% w 400 meter jog recovery

3) Short Stamina:  6 miles Tempo @ GMP - 4%

4) Long Stamina:  20 miles - first 4 easy, middle 12 @ GMP, last 4 easy

5) Endurance:  24 miles @ GMP + 10%

Math Guide:

If Goal Marathon Pace (GMP) = 6:00 per mile  (360 seconds)

GMP - 12% =  5:17 per mile  (360 x .12 = 43,  360 - 43 = 317 = 5:17)

GMP - 8% = 5:32 per mile  (360 x .08 = 28,  360 - 28 = 332 = 5:32)

GMP - 4% = 5:46 per mile  (360 x .04 = 14,  360 - 14 = 346 = 5:46)

GMP + 10% = 6:36 per mile  (360 x .10 = 36,  360 + 36 = 396 = 6:36)

For an explanation of these workouts, why these particular workouts, and how and when to use these workouts, see the book:  "Aerobic Titans" - coming out later this fall.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Transforming Goals Into Reality

"The future starts today, not tomorrow." - Pope John Paul II
Do you want to transform your goals into reality?  A major key to doing that will be to turn talk and intentions into steps and actions.  Many people talk the talk, but very few actually walk the walk and that is why so few reach their goals.  You must not only dream big and set goals, but you also must align your life, including daily routines and habits, in such a way as to achieve them.  That takes passion and commitment and THAT is what will make your dreams come true more than anything else. 

I can't give you that passion, that has to come from inside you, but I can show you the way if you have that passion. 

If you have that passion and commitment, and a big running goal to achieve, and need help getting there, please contact me at  I can and would LOVE to help you achieve your goals.  Lets talk about your running goals and let me help you identify what it will take to get there.  So then you can align your life accordingly and get to work making your goals a reality. I am available for consultations, on-line coaching and custom program design at 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How Fast Is Fast Enough In Training?

Alana Hadley doing sprint work

How fast is fast enough in training?  In other words, what is the fastest pace we need to train at in our preparations for our goal race?  I've done a lot of thinking on this question and have talked with many other coaches and athletes as well and so wanted to share with my thoughts and findings.   

One of the problems we face in training is that we have many systems to work and race demands to cover and only so many stress workout in which to do them.  We need to work primary systems and demands on a regular basis so we must prioritize what we do and how often we do them in order to regularly work on the areas most critical to our race success.  

Though my experience with athletes, talking with other coaches, and an analysis of the physiology, I have decided that the cut-off point is at ~12% faster than goal race pace.  I simply can't justify dedicating a full workout to working at any faster than 12% quicker than goal race pace.  While working at faster than that does have its benefits, the benefits reaped don't merit the full use of a precious resource, a whole dedicated workout.  Now that doesn't mean that I never have an athlete run faster than that, I just don't dedicate a whole workout to it.  I may have them do some strides or pick-ups during an easy run or acceleration sprints during a drill circuit that easily exceeds this pace, but the whole workout isn't dedicated to this type of pace.  

- If goal race pace is 7:00 per mile I wouldn't dedicate a full workout to any pace quicker than 6:10 pace
- If goal race pace is 6:00 per mile I wouldn't dedicate a full workout to any pace quicker than 5:17 pace
- If goal race pace is 5:00 per mile I wouldn't dedicate a full workout to any pace quicker than 4:24 pace

For marathon runners one of the faster dedicated workouts I have them do is:
12-16 x 600 @ 12% quicker than goal marathon pace with 1:30 jog recovery
(for a marathoner targeting 6:00 per mile goal pace these 600's would be targeting 1:59)

This workout is a supportive workout that not only covers our speed needs but also stresses our VO2 Max significantly and is long enough (4.5 to 6 miles worth of work + 1.5 to 2 mile in recovery jog + warm-up and cool-down) to provide some work to both stamina and endurance as well .  So while technically a speed workout it also supports other areas important to a marathoner, so I can justify dedicating a whole workout to this periodically.  If I have them work any quicker I would have to reduce the repeat distance and/or the number of repeats and thus I would loose some of those stamina and endurance benefits which make that justification harder to make.

Note:  this analysis and post was done with the 10k to marathon race distances in mind.

Happy Running,

Coach Mark Hadley

Monday, June 16, 2014

Workout Effort Level

One thing that many people struggle with in training is what is the proper effort level for a workout.  How hard is it OK to push, or should we push in a workout.  In this blog entry I want to try and answer this question for you.  In order to do this we need to start with some basic principles of what we are trying to do in training:

In training for distance running our work is centered on the stress and recover principle that states that if we stress the body in a certain way (running), and then let it recover, it will be better adapted to that stress than it was before.  I call 1 stress and recover cycle a "base unit".  So in training we increase our fitness by stacking base units, one on top of the other, for uninterrupted periods of time (a training block).  The mix of stresses (workouts) we do will depend on the event we are training for as well as many individual factors. 

Because we have multiple different systems to work (cardiovascular, muscular-skeletal, energy, neurological, etc.) we need to be able to work on each on a regular basis, so adaptations made in that system don't regress before we work on it again.  For this reason we need to arrange our base units and training blocks in such a way as to accomplish this.  One key to doing this is to properly managing the length of our base units. We want to find that balance where our stresses are hard enough to produce the adaptations we are after but manageable enough that we can recover from them in 1-3 days in order to be able to handle another stress workout (often focusing on a different system).  If our base unit is too long we won't be able to get to all the systems often enough and if they are too short we are either not stressing our system hard enough or get good adaptations or we are cutting our recoveries too short and this leaving some of the adaption (super-compensation) on the table.

Complicating this whole balancing act is the fact that distance running is an impact sport (causing more strain on the muscular skeletal system, which is the slowest to recover) and because of this it requires more recovery time than its other non-impact endurance sports such as biking and swimming.    

Given everything I just typed, then our main focus on our stress workouts is to work hard enough to gain a good amount of specific adaptation, but not so hard as to required extended recovery time.  This effort level is usually pretty hard but not an all out (race level) effort.   I call it a good hard 95% effort, in which we finish the workout know we worked pretty darn hard but that there was a little more left if we absolutely needed it.  If we do this we will get good adaptations and benefits from the workout but still be able to recover from it within a couple of days and do another stress workout of a similar difficulty.  

Side Note:  This concept (95% effort workouts) is especially important for longer distance runners (such as marathoners) where all out efforts require more recovery time.   Middle distance runners can get away with going all out in a workout more frequently than a marathoner can as they recovery from doing so for them is not as long.  I think this concept is one of the main things many coaches and athletes struggle with when they are trying to transition from the collegiate system, focused more on middle distances (800-5k), to the half marathon and marathon distances, they are use to pushing to the limit in most every workout and that rarely works well training for the marathon.

We can definitely have training paces we target to help us find this right level of work on these stress workouts, but the paces should just be a tool and the proper effort level be our primary goal.  Hitting a pace doesn't ensure the desired adaptation, but the right effort level does. I have done extensive work on what kind of paces we can expect to hit in workouts given this effort level at certain race fitness levels, but it is only a guide and not the ultimate driver.  This is why some elite runners, guys like Steve Jones back in the late 1980's, could train effectively without a watch, they were in tune with the desired effort levels for their work, which ensured they got the benefits they sought.  

On the flip side of the stress workouts is the recovery runs we do between them. They are just as important to our success as the stress workouts.  These recovery runs need to be done at an easy enough pace to recover from the stress workouts and so the adaptations (super-compensation) can occur, but at the same time not so slow as to teach our body bad bio-mechanical habits.  Similarly to the stress workouts, I have done extensive work finding what I think is the type of paces that accomplishes this for each race fitness level, but the key is always going to be recovering on these runs, so pushing the pace on these runs does no good.  

Note:  given this approach (95% effort on stress workouts) it becomes important to schedule periodic races (once every 4-8 weeks) or time trials into your training cycle, where it is the goal to give 100% efforts. These 100% efforts are needed periodically in order to stay mentally calloused to those all out efforts.  It can be hard for some people to give 100% in a race if they have not done so 6 months because of lack of racing.  

I hope that this answers some of your questions on efforts in training and how it relates to what we are trying to accomplish.

Happy Running,

Coach Mark Hadley  

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Pain Cave

Pain Cave:  the physical feeling of discomfort, pain or fatigue we get when running hard and pushing our limits, it can often feel enclosing like a cave with only 1 way to escape - to slow down.   

In workouts we can often go to the "pain cave", sometime we just stay in the mouth of the cave and sometimes we go deep inside. But over the course of a training cycle, we visit this "pain cave" so many times that we start to get a sense of familiarity to it, we understand its characteristics, its depths, its shallows, we get a strange sense of comfort with it, and even over time start to feel at home there in the cave.  It is then, when we have gotten to this point, we know we are ready to go racing.

Some call it "getting comfortable with being uncomfortable" or "mental callousing" but regardless of what you call it, it gives a sense of purpose to the discomforts we experience in training.  So much of our success will be determined by how we learn to deal with our time in this "pain cave". Do we stay positive, accept it, appreciate its place in expanding our limits, and make the most of it, or do we let it defeat us, rob our motivation and look to escape as soon as possible and never go back.   It is in this way that running can often mirror our lives. Very rarely do truly good things come without its share of sacrifice and perseverance.