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:
- 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.