Thursday, February 16, 2012

How To Run Fast Without Overstressing Your Body - Advice From a Legendary Coach

I recently came across a quote from Jack Daniels (no, not that one) that went something like this:

"Your goal is create the least possible stress on your body that produces the maximum physiological benefits, not maximum stress to accomplish the same benefits"

In other words, don't run one second faster that necessary in your workouts.

Now I know what you are thinking: "But I love to just crush a killer track workout by exceeding my goal paces".  Sound familiar?  I see it a lot at the track or when talking to others about their workouts.  You can push yourself a lot harder in those track workouts than your goal pace, because they are short, which means you only need to focus for a little bit at a time.  And then there is that feeling of "beating" yourself by running faster.  In fact, I'd argue to most people SHOULD be able to crush their designated paces.  But I always go back to the old saying, "Just because you could, doesn't mean you should".  And in this case, that rings true more than anything.

When I train, I keep that quote always in the back of my head.  I say it over and over again, especially when I am feeling really good.  Least possible stress, maximum physiological benefits (say that 5 times fast!).  The point here is that your body needs to be stressed to make those changes happen, but assuming you are running at your designated paces, you'll get those benefits without feeling like you are going to throw up at the end.  

Oh, and lets not forget this advice doesn't just apply to the track.  It also applies to your tempo runs and your long runs, where one could argue it is even more important, as these are the workouts that most closely mimic race conditions.

Of course, it also depends on the purpose of your workout - whether you are training for the mile or for the marathon - the ratio and focus of what type of work you need to be doing differs.  So for simplicity sake, let's focus on 5k and up.  Because in most of these cases, people tend to run their paces too hard in training.  Let's look at a few examples, because I think people get some of this confused:

Vo2Max Work versus Threshold Work
For those of us training primarily for longer distance events (think 5k and up), getting in some good quality workouts at both of these efforts might be important.  However, the longer the distance, the less important one is over the other.  Regardless of that fact, most people tend to focus solely on Vo2Max.  Why?  Because they believe running hard should hurt, and believe that running comfortably hard but in control, isn't hard enough.  Or they just don't know the difference, so they run what their friend is running.  And that's the problem.

If you are running a 10k - you are pretty much running at what most would consider your threshold pace.  A 5k is a bit faster than that.  But a marathon is significantly slower.  So what do they all have in common?  They are being run something like 99%+ from your aerobic system.  So why then do people spend so much time doing Vo2Max work?  I think I just said it above - because they don't know the difference between that and Threshold pace or they still think they need to run those faster workouts as hard as possible to get through the entire workout. 

"Common running advice" in magazines would say that you should run your interval workouts at a pace you can sustain for each set without much variation in time across the workout.  In other words, your first and last sets should be about the same time.  If your last one is slower than your first one, you ran them too hard.  Well by that model, you'd be failing to follow the advice of Jack Daniels - Least possible stress, maximum physiological benefits.  This is because you'd most likely run it fast enough to handle to pace, but you'd create more stress than necessary, which may limit future workouts down the road.

This isn't to say that Vo2Max paced running is bad - there is a time and place for it in your workouts (to read about some benefits, click here), but in comparison to the other types of paces one typically trains at for these types of events, it is the least specific and the most likely to cause excessive fatigue or injury.  So while it is beneficial in that it helps recruit some more muscle fibers, it really should only constistute a tiny percentage of your work.  According to Jack Daniels, up to 8% of your total weekly volume.

So take an average person who is running 40 miles/week and you get no more than 3.2 miles of speedwork.  Yep - that's not much for those of you who regularly run.  Most marathoners do intervals/tempo sessions of much more miles - sometimes up to 6+ miles worth of work.  And to handle that kind of stress by this logic, you'd need to be holding 75 miles/week to stay within the 8% guidelines.  I frequently see people running nearly all of their intervals at those paces and I'm pretty confident they aren't running 75+ miles/week...just sayin'

Now let's talk for a second about Threshold pace, which is something right around your 10-15k pace - commonly referred to as "the pace you could run for an hour".  For more experienced runners, I say it is closer to 10k pace (assuming it takes you less than an hour), but for less experienced runners, let's stick with 15k (or close to 10 mile) pace or 1 hour, which ever is less.  With Threshold pace, you get many of the same physiological benefits as Vo2Max work, but without as much risk of injury or burnout.  You develop the ability to run at a fast pace for a longer period of time, which also boosts your psychological senses as well as providing you an endurance boost.  As a result, it gives you greater confidence in being able to hold a fast pace over a long time, without leaving you wiped in the fetal position when you are done.  But the challenge with running at Threshold pace is really being able to run hard, but not too hard.  And that is where a lot of people fail - which is exactly why I am writing this.

Remember - the purpose of these workouts is to stress lactate clearance, not to create an overwhelming amount of stress.  Otherwise, the purpose of the workout changes.

Find Your Pace
So how do you know what pace to run?  Well, there are tons of online calculators that are out there to help you figure that out.  Jack Daniels has the vDot system, which is what I follow. (I am not addressing race predictions based on these numbers, because that would be a whole other topic and this is getting long enough!)  But the key here is using your most recent RESULTS to determine your paces, not what your GOAL is or what your PR from 2 years ago was.  If it isn't recent, it isn't relevant to your current fitness state.  You can't teach yourself to run faster by running at paces that aren't within your level of fitness.  Otherwise, you risk overuse injuries and the inability to absorb the work from training at the appropriate paces and we get back to where we began this conversation - running workouts too hard.

Conclusion
So the moral of the story is - learn what paces you need to run based on your CURRENT level of fitness and train at those paces.  Not the ones you wish you could run and not the ones that your friend trains at.  And train at those paces and not a second faster, because all you are doing is making yourself work harder to get the same result as the guy (or gal) next to you, only they had the knowledge to run at the appropriate level without exceeding it.  

Wanna take a guess as to who will show up on race day with the more fresh feeling legs and better trained?

Hopefully, its you!

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