Updated: May 5
There is no one way we do anything. Change is growth and continual improvement is at the forefront of our intentions in everything we do.
In the decade plus that I have been running marathons, organizing marathons and distance races, coaching runners from mid and high school XC/T&F to marathoners of every age and speed, I have thought about and written about my perspectives and methods in many different ways. I've been a pretty serious geek about training methods and physiology and the bio-mechanics of running. I have certifications (USATF, Natural Running Mechanics, AMFPT, Rock Doc, etc) but my experience and self study, along with some luck and being in the right place at the right time, have taught me more than any cert could have.
Hands down, the greatest influence to my running was a surprising one, my coaches. Long story short, I never really looked to have a coach. I didn't run in high school. Though I'd had amazing teachers and coaches in other areas of my life, running had always been more of a personal pursuit. Even as my obsession with progress and performance grew, the concept of acquiring a coach to help me never really reached my mind. In 2009 that all changed when I crossed paths with Richard Diaz and visited his impressive sport performance lab, Diaz Human Performance, in Camarillo, California. I had a running form analysis and V02 max test done and the door flew wide open! This was the tipping point in my life in learning from experts in the craft. I dove all the way in.
10 years and countless experiences later, here's a little broad stroke overview of some of my current viewpoints.
"The best engine in the world won't move a square block very quickly."
Starting from the start means to start with the way our bodies move. The "bio-mechanics" of running is an obsession for me and I estimate that I've personally conducted around 1,000 running form analysis with accompanying "Form Makeovers" to correct inefficiencies in movement patterns. I wont go into all of the specific patterns here but it is important to state that this is where every coaching conversation should begin. HOW YOU MOVE is everything. To overlook this is a lot like overlooking the aerodynamics in the design of a race car. The best engine in the world won't move a square block very quickly. We can usually find areas of improvement in even the fastest runners. This will always excite me! Every time I unlock a runner's stride, I laugh out loud. It never gets old.
Strength training is the most effective way to give a human the structural integrity to perform explosive actions and to endure longer bouts of stress on the body, as we see in running.
Once we have the mechanics dialed and the athlete is strong mechanically, we must build the structure. Strength training is the most effective way to give a human the structural integrity to perform explosive actions and to endure longer bouts of stress on the body, as we see in running. The difficulty here is balancing the volume of weight training with running. This varies greatly depending on the needs of an athlete. The entire athletic history of a person comes into play when deciding how much strength vs running will be most productive and will change with the needs of the athlete.
Some components of strength are universal. The first one being that adding strength training to any athlete's program will produce positive effects, even in sports like running that are plyometric in nature. Plyometric movements like running and jumping are best trained by repetitive training of the specific movements themselves. This repetitive training creates endurance, which is it's own type of strength. But adding non-plyometric exercises, puts load on the body and it's tissues in a different way. This can have many positive effects, including the reduction of overuse injuries, improved muscle recruitment and activation, increased mobility/range of motion and an increase in vital hormones.
There is no perfect recipe for everyone but we generally prescribe 2-3 strength sessions per week for a distance runner. These workouts include everything from basic core strengthening sessions using bodyweight all the way to explosive, heavy weighted Olympic style lifts like the "snatch", "cleans", "deadlifts", etc.
One thing is for sure, anything is better than nothing. Even one session per week of bodyweight exercise is better than nothing. The other extreme of doing "too much" weight training will be revealed upon the loss of efficiency due to unbalanced muscular development, too much added mass or the loss of aerobic capacity. The latter is quite easy to control by keeping the running volume high enough.
Peaking an athlete is part art, part science, part luck and pure dedication from the coach and athlete while staying in close communication through each phase of training.
There are 100 ways to skin a cat, so they say. And many more ways to plan out an athlete's calendar. But the magic is in the understanding of what ingredients to use, when to use them and how they all fit together. The athlete doesn't have to understand why they are running 25k @ 90% of Goal Marathon Pace but the coach MUST. This is where the level of coaching varies greatly in the running world. A training program is just a training program... until it isn't. Many coaches opt for "sexy" workouts that fit into standardized weeks and progress for 3 weeks before a 1 week reduction. It will work, just like some strength training is better than no strength training, but the end result and performance level of the athlete is often nowhere near their potential.
As far as methodology is concerned, Renato Canova has the most comprehensive approach of anyone in the sport of running. His influence has greater reach than we may ever know. If you have exposure to any Canova you will instantly recognize some of his principles here. *I trained with Scott Wandzilak under Nate Jenkins' coaching in 2013/2014. Nate was coached by Canova and uses much of his methodology, as well. This was my first real exposure to "Canovian"running
To unlock an athlete's potential we need a plan that considers the starting point, what the athlete will be able to handle and how much time we have to work with.
A good plan has specific phases to establish metrics of success along the greater journey. These micro- and meso- cycles make the macro- goal achievable. This is pretty basic. We typically consider the micro-cycle to be somewhere around a week and are looking to touch on a number of different ingredients relative to phase we're in. At the other end of the spectrum is the macro-cycle, which is the entire season from beginning to end. For us, this consists of anywhere between 14-24 weeks. This leaves the meso-cycles. This is perhaps the most important breakdown. The specific goals of each of these cycles, or phases as we refer to them, determines exactly what workouts we will aim to complete to ensure we are ready for what comes next. Let's take a look.
1. Pre-season/General Fitness Phase: the goal is to give an athlete the structure and strength to withstand the stressors of a comprehensive training cycle. This is also referred to as the Introductory Phase, though in some cases we use both Introductory and General phases to build a stronger foundation in an athlete. In either scenario the goal is to focus on mechanical speed, strength training, shorter intervals, circuits and building easy-moderate aerobic running volume. All of this prepares us for the Fundamental Phase.
2. Base/Fundamental Phase: usually referred to as base building, we use the Canovian term Fundamental Phase because the athlete is ready to put into motion all of the fundamentals of a real marathon cycle, or any distance for that matter. We see the greatest overall volume achieved within this phase. The long runs, always within a specific, controlled aerobic heart rate, graduate up to 30-45k. The athlete is ready for real speed work with fast pacing 110-115%+ Goal Race Pace and workload volumes from 8-12k. The mechanical speed and strength training components remain a steady staple. Finally, we use easy and moderate runs as a form of regeneration and recovery, while extending the aerobic capacity. There are specific indicators to graduate an athlete from Fundamental training and into the sharpening phases. Without having achieved certain benchmarks, it is not appropriate to graduate to the next level. This is the biggest mistake I see in training, rushing the process because your calendar says so. The body must arrive at each level before attempting the next.
3. Sharpening/Special and Specific Phases: You've heard "sharpening the knife" a million times in reference to these phases. What's actually happening is a physiological preparation for the specific rigors of race day. Everything up until now has either been pushing on the anaerobic or lactate threshold, increasing aerobic pace relative to heart rate, developing aerobic capacity and working different components of the race without fully putting it all together. In these phases, we start to get specific. We put it all together and begin the "dress rehearsals" for the final dance. Long runs at marathon pace. Long intervals at or slightly above marathon pace. The speed work will be slower and longer and the long work will be faster. All workouts begin working the same system. That "just below threshold" sweet spot where Kipchoge can run 4:34/mile... AEROBICALLY!!
Besides tapering, all that's left is a whole lot of race prep and psychology, but we'll save that for another time.
As with anything, the layers continue to unfold from here. It's all just a matter or how far we want to take it. I hope you found some value and insight into what we are working to achieve.
We use very specific workouts and percentages to achieve the goals in each phase from the very beginning. Arbitrary training leads to mediocre results, not just in running, in life. We must train how we live and we live to be our best.
- Blue Benadum