Devising an Efficient Training Plan
by Joe Rubio
|In a never-ending search for improved race times, competitive runners are constantly on the prowl for a better weekly plan, improved workout routine, or new addition to their training diet that will help them race faster. |
There is a seemingly endless supply of articles on the Internet or in the magazines each month that fuel this desire. These articles tout a new “flavor of the month” workout that promises to deliver outstanding race results in five easy steps, yet each “new” workout looks suspiciously similar to the secret workout from the previous month. Unfortunately for many runners, attempts at varying their own training menu rarely produce significantly better race results. After several seasons of trial and error, the question arises: “Is there really a consistent training program that I can use to achieve success, or is this really as fast as I can run?”
Learning From Experience
When I look back on my competitive marathon days and read over the training I did to run my personal bests, I’m struck by the simplicity of it. It was really due to dumb luck that I happened on a successful training plan, particularly because I did not have a coach to set it up for me. In addition, I thought I knew everything there was to know about training at the time. I did not even consider looking at other runners’ training diaries to see what I could learn from them; I just went about running workouts based largely on trial and error. To determine my schedule, I looked over my old training logs, picked out a few workouts I liked, and then proceeded do these workouts over and over until the big day. Sometimes this process worked well, while at other times it was a disaster.
Based on a series of fortunes and misfortunes, it became apparent that to race my best marathon, I had to include six elements in my training schedule consistently to achieve success. These six elements are:
1. A weekly long run of 90 to 120 minutes or longer.
In coaching other runners, I have found that if they consistently incorporate these same six variables into their training, they’ll realize the same solid performances I did. This holds true for 1500m specialists, marathoners, and everyone in between.
I recently used these same six elements to design training programs for 10 athletes. Of these 10, six set significant personal records, ranging from the 1500m to the marathon. You can incorporate these same six elements into your program to train more efficiently and become a stronger runner as well.
The six training elements that I stumbled on fall into four essential training zones as classified by David Martin, Ph.D., and Peter Coe in Better Training for Distance Runners. This book is regarded as one of the best available works on the science and theory of distance running training. Martin and Coe’s four basic training zones include the following:
Aerobic conditioning (Elements 1 & 2)
Training in this zone is achieved primarily through moderately paced sustained runs of 30 to 120 minutes at 55 to 75 percent of VO2 max. What does this mean in terms of “real-world” paces? These runs range from a warm-up jog to everyday conversational-pace running. Most general training runs during the week fall into this category. This pace also encompasses recovery runs, which is running at less than 65 to 70 percent of VO2 max. This particular training zone is responsible for the following:
Anaerobic conditioning (Element 3)
Training in this zone involves runs primarily of 15- to 25-minute efforts completed at 75 to 90 percent VO2 max. These runs are generally defined as tempo or steady-state runs and range from slightly slower than marathon race pace to as fast as 10K race pace. The main goal of training in this zone is to complete a comfortably hard effort for a sustained amount of time. This training zone is responsible for the following:
Aerobic capacity (Element 4)
This type of training is performed primarily through two- to eight-minute repetitions at 90 to 100 percent of VO2 max, where VO2 max pace is the pace that well-trained distance runners can hold for roughly 10 to 11 minutes when running all out. This is the exact pace necessary to develop maximum oxygen uptake by the muscles. These are classically defined as interval workouts or fartlek runs, whereby the athlete runs at a particular pace and then takes a recovery jog between hard efforts. In this case, the harder efforts are performed at primarily 5K to 10K race pace. This is the fastest of the aerobic paces. This particular training zone is responsible for the following:
Anaerobic capacity (Element 5)
This type of training is performed primarily through 30- to 120-second repetitions at faster than 100 percent of VO2 max. This effort is anaerobic and is considered speedwork to most. Repetitions are generally performed at roughly one- to two-mile race pace for most distance runners, although middle-distance runners are known to regularly run repetitions at 800m race pace and faster. This particular training zone is responsible for the following:
Weekly Recovery Day (Element 6)
The sixth element, a recovery day each week, is not specifically addressed in the training zone list, but is addressed in nearly every manual on competitive distance training because it is essential to the training process. Unfortunately, overly competitive athletes often do not take an easy day unless they are forced to. Most athletes view a recovery day as wasted: “Why run easy when I can get in extra training?” By scheduling a recovery day each week, you can be fairly certain that you get at least some, if not all, of the rest your body needs to adapt and improve. This is probably the one ingredient that keeps many athletes from improving. Basic physiology and the noted physician Hans Selye—who described in great detail how stress of any sort can positively or negatively influence humans—tell us that improvement relies on adequate recovery, which allows adaptation and overcompensation for fitness to occur. Recovery need not entail a complete rest day; a recovery run can be defined as 20 to 40 minutes at a very comfortable aerobic-conditioning pace. Recovery can also be defined as the absence of a hard training day once or twice during the week. This could include easier aerobic-conditioning runs in place of harder workouts such as anaerobic-conditioning, aerobic-capacity, or anaerobic-capacity runs.
Incorporating the Elements
Most runners know the purpose of the various workouts that they do; they’re just not quite sure which workouts they should do consistently as part of their training program or if they are doing the right mix of workouts to gain the greatest possible increases in event-specific fitness. Most runners generally end up focusing on one, or maybe two, of the four available training zones and bypassing the others. Not on purpose, perhaps—it just tends to work out that way.
Many athletes, left to their own devices, will do the workouts at the general pace they are proficient at while avoiding workouts they have trouble with. Some runners may occasionally incorporate the training zones that are not part of their normal training routine, but not with conviction and rarely for long enough to affect their fitness significantly—that is, they are not consistent. This leads to a one-dimensional athlete whose progress is delayed because he or she does not train in all of the training zones; these athletes miss a key piece or two of the fitness puzzle. When improvement is the name of the game—and this is a point that most people miss—increased racing fitness is best achieved by following a well-rounded program based on consistently training within each of the four training-pace zones.
Designing Your Own Training Week
Based on my experience as an athlete and a coach, I believe that the most valuable tool for any self-coached runner is an outline to guide decisions regarding which workouts are appropriate. The key is classifying the various workouts and then scheduling them into your training consistently.
I cannot name one individual heroic workout that will take someone to the next level, but there are a few workouts that, when done consistently and repetitively as part of a training schedule, can lead to substantial progress for the majority of runners. The following suggestions will help you fit each of the six elements into your training consistently within your standard training cycles. Some advanced athletes who recover quickly can address all six within a single week. Athletes who require more time between hard efforts to recover fully should consider fitting these within a two- or three-week cycle, scheduling one to two hard workouts a week. You can also try a 10-day cycle if one week doesn’t work for you, but given that most people have schedules that revolve around a standard seven-day week, we tend to stick with seven, 14 or 21 days as the standard options.
Step 1. Designate Your Recovery Day
Because most of the athletes I work with have families and careers, a recovery day is usually one on which they’d like to complete additional chores around the house, spend time with their families, or socialize. It may be a day to do little or nothing except read a book and relax. Others travel frequently for business and have a floating schedule; these runners need a day on which they can miss a run without feeling guilty. View the recovery day as a day to let your body and mind unwind and allow modern life to take priority over training. As an added benefit, it’ll keep you healthy, allow you to improve, and help keep you motivated.
Step 2. Choose Your Long-Run Day
This is pretty simple because most athletes do their weekly long run on either Saturday or Sunday. Whatever works for you is fine, as long as you do it consistently. I don’t have a hard and fast rule regarding spacing recovery days around the long run. In most cases, my athletes run a harder effort on Saturday, run long on Sunday, and run an easier day on Monday. This allows Saturday to be fairly hard and Sunday moderate while providing a recovery day following these back-to-back harder run days.
Step 3. Choose Your Primary Workout Days
On primary workout days you run scheduled harder workouts. My athletes schedule primary workouts every Tuesday and Friday in the fall. In the spring, the longer-distance athletes maintain this schedule, while the middle-distance runners adopt a Monday, Wednesday and Saturday schedule. Depending on the length of your workout cycle, combinations of hard days vary. A seven-day cycle might include primary workouts on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Runners on a 14-day cycle might designate Monday and Thursday as primary hard-workout days. On the other hand, some runners can only tolerate a single hard workout each week and are therefore on a 21-day cycle. Based on your particular goal event, rotate workouts in this order:
1. 200s, 300s or 400s at faster than 5K race pace (anaerobic capacity)
On the fourth hard-effort day, start over again with the 200s, 300s or 400s at faster than 5K pace and work your way through the lineup again. In this manner, you address all the relevant energy systems needed for top-level performance.
During the final four to eight weeks of the training year before the championship racing season, I make adjustments based on event focus, namely, 1500m runners drop the anaerobic conditioning workouts (tempo runs) and marathoners drop the anaerobic capacity workouts (short repeats). 5K to 10K runners continue to cycle through all three, with an aerobic capacity (long repeats) workout each week.
Step 4. Schedule Your Double Days
I generally schedule double days on the harder primary workout days of the week because I want the athlete’s hard days to be hard. Without exception, my top athletes do a minimum of two double days per week on Tuesdays and Fridays, the same days we schedule either the 200s, 300s, and 400s, the 800m to 2400m repetitions, or the tempo run. The more experienced athletes add double days on an additional two to four days per week as they see fit.
Step 5. Fill in Rest With Aerobic Conditioning Runs
The remaining days should consist of runs varying from 45 to 90 minutes. Whether you choose to do two-a-days and whether you keep to the shorter end of the 45- to 90-minute range or the longer end is as much a matter of preference and “recoverability” as it is a function of your chosen race distance.
So that’s it. Designing a training plan is important yet simple. I’ve described the elements it should include and provided examples of runners across the race-distance spectrum who have used these elements to form training plans that have taken them to the top of their game. Now, it’s your turn.