As I'm sure you know, I'm trying something different this year with my training. I started this approach in October and have steadily kept to it over the winter and now into spring. To summarize - less speed/high intensity work in favor of largely aerobic work. It is pretty simple, though there are tweaks to the plan. A large part of the volume is "relatively" easy. I don't expect everyone to be able to have this method work for them, but I do enjoy the periodic realizations that this method is working, as seen by my most recent PR.
The results from baseline tests typically tell the story of success in one's training. By simply looking back at my training logs over the past 2 years, I can see a significant upswing in my ability to hold pace at a low heart rate, based on this new training approach. And I believe it is the ability to run well at low heart rates that leads to the ability to run fast. However, in order to accomplish this, you must go back to running easy for a while. It didn't start coming around this way at first. The first few weeks felt painfully slow, but I decided I had nothing to lose (since there are no high priority races to force me consider short term goals in favor of long term), so I stuck to the game plan. Sure enough, after a few months of consistent work, I am starting to see a serious correlation to the numbers I post on a day to day basis, to the numbers I post in my baseline tests, and now to the numbers I post in my races (regardless of race distance thus far).
It is the adaptations that happen through these low HR runs that are allowing me to steadily improve. Not by increasing my top end speed, but by increasing by body's ability to operate efficiently. There are 2 schools of thought on this:
1) By consistently training at a hard pace, you "teach" your body to handle the stress over time, at that hard pace
2) By consistently training at an easy pace, your body becomes efficient, thereby providing benefits at ALL speeds
Within these 2 options, one introduces lots of stress (1) and the other does not (2). By not introducing stress, it is easier for me to recover from my runs and become much more consistent. When one introduces stress, the residual fatigue (depending on the difficulty of the workout) may persist for days, thus compromising future workouts. In all of my training runs during this time (up to 14 miles), I have not had a day where I felt too fatigued to be able to run the next day. Day after day, I've continued to build my efficiency, to not only handle the increased stress from the volume, but my body simply responds better to ANY type of stress I introduce to it.
For comparisons sake in my training methods, let me simply describe my previous training, which consisted of speed work, tempo runs, a long run, and a few easy runs mixed in. My pace progressed, as did my times. But I found myself injured or dinged up a bit more frequently than I would care to admit. I also found that after a period of training (typically 2-3 months), I'd plateau, making it very difficult to progress any further, forcing me to introduce even more stress (by increasing the intensity or distance at a similarly high intensity). In my new alternative approach, my focus is primarily in low heart rate, higher volume, aerobic base building prior to implementing any other type of training. As it stands, I am seeing significant progress WITHOUT any of the speed work, tempos, etc. The focus is on building the aerobic engine. In fact, my weekly volume is on the verge of topping my typical weekly volume when I was marathon training. Only the difference is that I do not constantly find myself nearly as fatigued. Progress? You betcha.
What this training (and numbers) prove, is that a strong aerobic base is much more effective than high end top speed. Genetically, I am fast at short distances, as my high school track experience dictated. But the unfortunate thing is that this does not correlate to endurance sports. I cannot simply run at my fast pace, each time a little bit longer, and expect the get the same results. Why? Because even races as short as 5k rely significantly on your aerobic engine, not just top speed. Top speed certainly does increase the potential at a 5k distance, but it is your aerobic engine that will allow your body to operate at a high level, not your anerobic ability. Building the aerobic engine allows your body to carry itself at a given pace more efficiently.
Let's remember that for the past 4 months, I have not done any speed work, tempos, etc. Look at my race results in the past 4 months - 3 PRs at the 10k distance. I never trained for the 10k, nor did I ever train at anything close to race pace. My body was simply able to operate more efficiently, because of the aerobic engine I built (and will continue to build so long as my times keep dropping).
Let me go back for a minute. As the title of this post states, the proof is in the pudding. I've looked at nearly all of my data from 2+ years of training and what I can tell you is this:
My pace at my Zone 1 HR is consistently dropping. Never have I seen a significant drop in my HR for a given pace at an easy HR using other approaches. Until now.
Let me give you some numbers. For me, 9:00/mile is not a fast pace (it is approximately my Zone 1 pace give or take). But when you start looking at my limited success at long distance racing (ie marathon implosions), you see a different story about that pace. Now clearly, I didn't race my marathons at a Zone 1/easy pace. I ran them at a high Zone 2/Zone 3 pace, per most marathon pace guidelines. Here is an example from the National Marathon races I have run:
- 2008 National Marathon: 3:57:48, pace: 9:04/mile, Average HR 160 bpm
- 2009 National Marathon: 3:49:14, pace: 8:45/mile, Average HR 158 bpm
What I am starting to see, is that my former "Zone 2/3 pace" that I followed in the marathon, is quickly becoming my easy Zone 1 pace. In marathon training, I did most of my runs in Zone 2/3, a few Zone 4 runs, and a recovery run in Zone 1/2. But based on my data, that type of training did not drop my HR at any given pace. My body just adapted to the work and was able to handle it over time (until the fatigue became too much, resulting in injury).
Now - here is another example from a recent long run:
- 2:05:52, 14 miles, pace: 8:59, Average HR 139
Take a look back at the marathon numbers I provided above. I'll give you a minute to let that soak in.
A similar pace, but nearly 20 bpm lower! Now it is true that this was only 14 miles and not a full marathon and just a training day and not a race. But, my numbers in training at all distances from my previous logs were very similar, so it is safe to say the numbers can be used for comparison.
What this is essentially showing is that my base fitness is steadily improving through this method of training. With an incredibly low HR (for me), I am almost able to run at what was my Zone 2/3 marathon pace. What this also means is that when I start increasing my effort (ie HR goes up), my pace drops. So when we look at my pace at a HR of 150, we'd see (from my baseline tests) that I am somewhere around an 8:15/mile pace. This HR is still a good bit below the HRs posted at the marathon, but drastically lower in pace. And the trend continues when we look at my HR at 160, 170, and 180. It is this correlation that has led to faster 10k times.
So long as this base fitness keeps improving, so will my HRs ability to maintain pace over the course of a race. The fitter I am at my aerobic level, the faster I'll be able to race in the end because of this correlation.
I am doing the work, being consistent, and starting to see the results. Sometimes though, you have to check your competitive ego at the door. When I'm out running and I see some guy in non-running clothes huffing and puffing and pass me, my instinct would be to speed up so I can show him who's boss. But I just have to let him go. I know that I can probably smoke him any day at any time. But training runs are not the time or place. Baseline tests and races are when you show up. Anything else, just limits your progress.
The proof is in the pudding.