Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Up and Down or Sustained Training

There has been a debate going on in running for some time now between planning down weeks into your training program versus following a sustained training plan.  There are plenty of coaches and runners lined up on each side of this debate and the discussion is often heated and thought provoking.  As most of you who are regular readers of my blog are aware, I am not afraid to share where I stand on hot button topics such as this, and explain to you why I believe that way. 

So in today's blog I will weigh in on this topic:  

Planned Down Weeks vs. Sustained Program

Now the planned down weeks I am talking about is when coaches or runners plan to train hard for 2-3 weeks (“up weeks”) and then plan an easier week of lower mileage and/or intensity (“down week”).  From what I have seen “2 up and 1 down” or “3 up and 1 down” seem to be the most common variation of this training philosophy.  Often the stated purpose of this is to give the body a chance to recover and “absorb” the hard training and to avoid over training.  All those things are noble goals. 

But I have a problem with this concept and let me explain why. 

The basic principle behind all physical training (including running) is based on is the principle of stress and recover.  This principle states that if we stress the body in a certain way (such as running) and then allow that body to recover from that stress, it will be better adapted to that particular stress.  This is illustrated in the figure below, where we stress the body (break it down) and then let it recover and during that recovery a super-compensation occurs which raises our level of adaptation (fitness). 

What is important for our discussion today, is to note that if we cut the recovery short we aren't getting the super-compensation or at least not the full benefit of it.  For this reason proper recovery after our stresses (workouts) is critically important to making progress in our training. 

I call 1 full stress and recover cycle a “base unit” and it usually involves a stress day followed by 1 or 2 easy recovery days.    Mastering this base unit is very important to our training.  We need to know how hard we can push on our stress days and then how much time do we need to recover (and what we can do during that recovery) before stressing again.   

Then once we have mastered this base unit, the most efficient way to progress our fitness is by simply stacking one base unit on top of another and properly balancing and sequencing our types of stress workouts in such a way as improve the areas of fitness we are targeting. 

But a planned down week philosophy works against that by “planning” to work too hard (i.e. not sustainable) for 2 or 3 weeks so that you will need a “down week”.  Basically they are admitting that they are not mastering the base unit and rather than focusing on mastering the base unit, they are compensating by adding in extra rest after a few weeks.  I don’t think this is an efficient or very effective way to train.   Over train for 2-3 weeks and then try and recover so you can do it again???

If you need to a break (down week) after 2 or 3 weeks of training, than you have not been sufficiently recovering from stress workouts during that 2 or 3 training.  This could be because you have either worked too hard on your stress days or because you didn't take enough recovery time (or ran your recovery too hard).  In this scenario, you are not getting the full super-compensation for each of those workouts and taking extra recover after multiple weeks is ineffective at getting you the full super-compensation you missed weeks ago.  The super-compensation is most effectively gained in the recovery immediately following the stress.  

What is even more puzzling to me about many of the coaches who follow this “down week” philosophy is that I have heard many of them preach how the “#1 problem runners have is not properly recovering from their workouts”.  Well if they believe that really is the case, why not work with them on mastering the base unit so they don’t need those down weeks, instead of implement a strategy to repeatedly deal with bad base unit execution. 

I believe that “down weeks” during the training portion of a cycle should be something you take only if and when you determine you have not been recovering from your workouts sufficiently and need to take one to avoid or remedy a state of over training.  It should not be a condition you plan to be in on such a regular basis that you have to plan it into your program.  If it is, then you need to spend time on restructuring your base unit to fix the cause, and not on planning in down weeks as a band-aid.

I believe the most effective way to progress in running fitness during a training cycle is to master your base unit first and foremost and then train in a sustainable manner so you can stack those base units one on top of each efficiently for a prolonged period of time during your training phase of your cycle.  In other words, take continual measured steps forward toward your goal, not embrace a strategy of taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back over and over again in training.  

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Incremental Thinking

Incremental thinking can be a big key to producing our best as runners.  And this incremental thinking can permeate all aspects of our running, from planning our training, to executing 1 run at a time, to segmenting our race plans.  

By incremental thinking I am talking about both breaking things down in to small manageable sections or segments, and also on then focusing only on executing them one at a time. 

In our training plans we want to move from where we are currently to where we want to go (example:  from a 3:15 marathon to 3:00 marathon).  To start this process I break our training down into the 4 measurable tenets if training: consistency, capacity, frequency and mixture (the 5th tenet - passion - is not easily measurable).  I score the runner on where they stand on each tenet on a scale of 1 to 10.  1 is where a beginner runner would start and 10 is what are the best practices of the top elite runners.  The runner gets a score on each tenet.  In order to improve (get faster) and progress as a runner we seek to incrementally improve in each tenet, that is to rate a higher score as much as is practical for that runner (i.e. within any hard constraints they have).  The real key to doing this is to set-up an incremental progression.  If we try and jump too quickly in any area we greatly increase the risk that our bodies or minds will reject the increase and we’ll be forced to reset. So our training plans then become about patiently and incrementally making progress over time (1 training cycle at a time) in each tenet - one small step at a time.

Executing Training
Once our training plans have been made, our focus now becomes on incrementally executing the plan.  This means taking it 1 run at a time and focusing only on executing that run.  In order to do this effectively we must know the purpose of every run we are doing and keep our focus on executing that purpose with excellence.  Whether the run is a stress workout or a recovery run, we realize each is important and seek to get the most from it.  This incremental approach keeps us in moment and focusing on what we can control – our current run.


In racing we also follow this incremental approach.  We establish our race plans by breaking the race down into segments and proceed through the race incrementally.  I have found it best to also make the segments smaller as the race goes along.  Then in the race we only allow ourselves to focus on executing the segment we are in.  We don’t worry about or celebrate what happened in a prior segment, or worry or think about a future segment, we stay in the moment and focus only on executing our plan for the segment we are in to the best of our abilities.   

This incremental thinking proves out the old saying that "the best way to control our future is to take care of our present".  

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Exploring Why Elite U.S. Runners Are Less Competitive In The Marathon

I recently looked up some race statistics and I think they illustrate what many of us have known for a while now: the United States is not very competitive in terms of elite level marathon and half marathoner performances, in what has become an increasingly competitive running world. 

First I’d like to share with you with the statistics that demonstrate this point, and then some thoughts on why I think that is, and what I think we can do about it. 

The Statistics

An event by event listing (800-Mar) of the number of the top 40 performers in the world in 2013 (in terms of best time for the year) that are Americans.

800 meters  -  8  of 40 (20%)
1500 meters  -  9 out of 40 (23%)
5000 meters  -  10 out of 40  (25%)
10,000 meters  -  4 out of 40  (10%)
Half Marathon  -  0 out of 40  (0%)
Marathon  -  0 out of 40  (0%)

800 meters  -  9  of 40 (23%)
1500 meters  -  8 out of 40 (20%)
5000 meters  -  9 out of 40  (23%)
10,000 meters  -  3 out of 40  (8%)
Half Marathon  -  1 out of 40  (3%)
Marathon  -  0 out of 40  (0%)

Of the Top 100 Times in the world in 2013 in the half marathon and the marathon, how many were Americans?

Half Marathon – 1 out of 100  (1%)
Marathon – 0 out of 100  (0%)

Half Marathon – 1 out of 100  (1%)
Marathon – 1 out of 100  (1%)

(Interesting side note: the Japanese women have 8% of the top 100 marathon times and 12% of the top 100 half marathon times in 2013)

I also looked at 2011 and 2012 stats as well and U.S. marathoners and half marathoners didn't fare much better than either.

What Is The Problem?

World renown coach, the late Arthur Lydiard, and American coaching legend, Joe Vigil, both who have traveled the world extensively, have stated that from their travel of the world they have found that there as much distance running talent here in the United States as anywhere.  That while countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia may have a higher percentage of their population with strong physical characteristics needed for elite distance running, those characteristics are certainly present in large quantities on the U.S. as well.  

If we look at the above statistics along with this insight from these legendary coaches, then obviously there is a problem with how we are approaching elite marathon and half marathoning in the United States if we want to be competitive on a world level.

I think there are 3 main underlying reasons why we seem to be very competitive in the 800-5k and relatively not competitive in the marathon and half marathon distances:

Youth/Scholastic System:  In the United States the youth and scholastic running systems are very ingrained and are how 99% of elite runners (and most non-elites as well) begin in the sport.  These systems are very much focused on the middle distances (in terms of distance runners) with events from 800 to 5000 meters dominating the make-up of meets (in terms of distance races).  When a young athlete shows an interest in running, they are usually prompted by most people to join their school and/or youth track teams.  There they are trained and focused on the middle distance events (800-5k) unless hey are pure sprinters.  This is largely what they grow up knowing and doing.  Add to this that the seasonal system and frequent race environment of both systems are much better suited to training and developing middle distance runners than they are long distance runners, and we have most of our distance talent focusing on the middle distances the first half of their running careers. While this provides them with good speed and can develop their VO2 Max well, it does far less to further the aerobic development, endurance and thresholds they’ll need for elite success in the longer races (HM and Mar). 

Late Start:  There seems to be a general mindset, and has been for some time, among most elite American runners that the marathon is only something that you move to or try once you have reached your potential at the middle distance (800-3k) and shorter distance (5k-10k) races.  This means most elite American runners are not seriously focusing on marathons until later in their careers when they have reached or past their primes and often after they have experienced injuries along the way that often come with higher intensity training of the shorter races.  This is hardly the ideal situation in which to embark on higher mileage marathon training.  While we have begun to see this mindset be challenged more frequently in recent years, it is often done so only by the second and third tier talent rather than the top tier talent coming out of college.

Elite Teams:  There are far more elite teams and training groups in the United States focused on the middle and shorter distance races (800-10k) than on the half marathon and marathon.  Currently the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project is the only significant elite training group focused primary on the half marathon to marathon distance.  As compared with a dozen or more groups focused primarily on middle distance events.  This provides significantly less opportunities for talented American marathoners to work with elite coaching in a supported group environment. 

Further complicating this situation is that even the training groups with a broader focus, who do train some elite marathoners as well as shorter distance specialists, are almost always run by coaches who began and worked most of their coaching careers specializing in the middle and shorter long distances races, and who only dabble in the marathon or picked it up partially in later years.  There is far, far fewer elite coaches in the United States who specialize in the marathon and half marathon distances than there are their middle distance counter-parts.  So even the elites who want to focus on the marathon and half marathon often end up working with coaches for whom these events are not their main specialty. 

Looking at another sport, most head coaches in professional football came up the ranks and have an area of specialty (such as o-line, d-line, d-coordinator, QB’s, etc).  These head coaches understand a good deal about every area and position and can coach each at some level, but they have specialists in each area to do the main coaching if it is not the head coach’s main area of specialty.  Pro running hasn’t gotten their yet, we still ask 1500-5k specialist coaches to coach our professional marathoners on a regular basis.  Can it work to some degree of success - yes under some circumstances.  But is it ideal for the best development of marathoners, no, I think not.   

So What Do We Do?

After identifying what I think are the 3 main underlying problems, I think there are 4 primary things we can do that will help turn things around and make the U.S. far more competitive in the marathon and half marathon distances.

Parallel Youth Club System:  I believe the U.S. would benefit from the formation of youth club teams for kids who have special interests in or talent at the longer distances races, as a parallel system to the more middle distance focused current system.  While these kids will not be racing marathons (or even half marathons until ready) they would be setting the ground work for being able to do that successfully later on by beginning work on building aerobic development as well as learning about these distance races under the careful and watchful eye of a coach.  In most cases, these groups could use local road races (5k’s to half marathon) as their competitions.  The benefits of this is presenting an alternate path for those not well suited for the shorter distance focused clubs or school teams but who have longer distance talent, and by providing a system that begins laying the foundation for success in the longer races.  This 2 pronged approach to our young distance runners (instead of just 1) will be more inclusive of all distance runner talents and should help us produce more athletes who are better prepared for success in races across the full spectrum of championship events (800-Mar) rather than just the middle distances.

More Elite Groups/Coaches Focused On The Marathon:  We need to form more elite training groups/teams focused primarily on the marathon and half marathon distances and who are coached by elite coaches who have the marathon as their specialty.  Just as Brooks has sponsored and supports the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project, we need other companies/sponsors (such as Nike, Adidas, Mizuno, Saucony, New Balance, Under-Armour, etc.) to sponsor/support marathon focused groups & teams.   These would seem to be a good play for these sponsors as well, given the mass appeal and fast growing nature of marathons and half marathons in the U.S. and the explosion of distance running as a participation and competitive sport.

This increase in marathon focused training groups will provide an increase in opportunities for talented marathoners to work together in groups, and under the coaching of a coach dedicated to that distance specialty, and that in turn will increase the number of success stories we see.  This will also give more athletes the opportunity to transition to the marathon earlier in their careers, before their peak years, so they can learn and grow in the event, rather than just trying to salvage a last hurrah. 

I believe that having marathon specialist coaches is a key element of this.  We want coaches who think, research and understand the marathon first and foremost, not just ones who know it somewhat as a secondary event for them.  I believe we need more coaches who specialize in the same events as their athletes. 

Encourage More Sub-Elites to Training Seriously For the Marathon:  The more serious runners we have in the U.S. who seriously train for marathon goals, the deeper we are and the better chance we have of producing high level marathoners.  There are 2 reasons why I think this works.  One is you will get a small percentage of these sub-elites who find they have the talent to cross-over from sub-elite to the elite level.  Dick Beardsley is a great example of this as he went from 2:47 in the marathon to 2:08 in a matter of 5 years.  So the more sub-elites we have pursuing this, the more cross-overs that may occur.  But probably the more important reason is the example they set and people they inspire.  If we have more sub-elites seriously pursing the marathon, we have more young runners seeing them and getting excited about the event, we have more family members and friends following the sport, and we foster a more competitive spirit in the sport nationally as each sub-elite strives to climb their way up national marathon lists.    

American Only Money At Second Tier U.S. Races:  One thing that I think could make a big difference in allowing and encouraging more Americans to train for the marathon and half marathon distances is if there were American only prize money at second tier U.S. road races (especially half marathons and marathons).  This prize structure would allow the prize money these races give out to go to supporting the U.S. athletes working to bring the U.S. back to the top of international competition but who aren't quite there yet.  This support can help those athletes obtain the resources needed to dedicate themselves to this task.  As I talked about in an earlier blog, I also believe this is just as beneficial to these races as it is to the U.S. athletes.  While we obviously still need the top headline races to be open to open to all athletes and be the hallmarks of international competitions, the second tier U.S. races, which more regional and national in scale, could benefit U.S. athletes and benefit themselves from a more select prize structure.   

There you have my thoughts and analysis if this situation.  What do you think and what ideas do you have?

Happy Running!

Coach Mark Hadley