Monday, August 24, 2009


Continuing on the theme of thinking through the four basic principles of endurance training, let’s turn our attention to duration. Again, the concept here is pretty simple: duration is the amount of time you spend in an individual workout.

Let’s assume that you have been training for at least a couple of months, building your frequency up to an appropriate level. At that point in your training, it’s time to start changing duration in order to increase your fitness.

Frequency was easy to change; all you had to do was add a workout here and there. Duration is slightly more complicated, because it does not apply across every single workout. To be more precise: at this phase in your training, you will hold frequency steady, but start increasing the duration of 1-2 workouts per week. Your other workouts will remain as they were.

As a distance runner, one of your staple workouts is going to be a long run. Many runners do these long runs on a weekly basis, primarily because weekends work best. When designing the ideal workout regimen, I would probably advocate for a long run about once every 10 days, but since most of us have day jobs, that’s just not practical.

Creating your long run involves adding time, but not intensity, to one of your workouts per week. There is no set mathematical model for this, of course, but start by adding 5-10 minutes to one of your weekend runs each week for a month. If that’s too much, just back off a little. One other word of caution about long runs: you can’t build up duration infinitely. I recommend building up for 3 consecutive weeks, then dropping back down for a week before resuming the buildup. The duration of a long run for non-marathoners will build up until it's about 1:30 or 1:40 in length; marathoners will go longer, at least 2:00 and maybe up to 3:30. When I’ve finished all of these posts on training, I’ll create a sort of template workout plan that will illustrate all of the principles I've been writing about.

That takes care of the weekend long run, but it’s also a good idea to begin extending the duration of one of your weekly runs (logically, a mid-week run). Here you aren’t targeting the same duration as the weekend, but you want to gradually work your way up to a run of at least one hour (or up to 90 minutes if you are training for peak performance). Again, this should be accomplished gradually … try adding 5 minutes per week until you reach 60 minutes, then stay at that duration for at least three weeks before building up again.
Remember, at the core of endurance training is your body’s adaptation to stress. You adapt to stress when you rest, so make sure that you are recovering completely following each workout. If not, rest awhile. Be patient. How can you tell if you are not recovering completely? Several signs to look for:
  • Lethargy
  • A sensation of "heavy legs" or "floppy legs"
  • Afternoon sleepiness
  • Weight loss or unusual weight fluctuations
  • Dreading the next workout
  • Loss of sexual drive or loss of motivation for things that normally excite you
  • Breathing unusually heavily during low-intensity workouts
  • Heart rate won’t go up during exercise, or a long lag before it does
  • Muscle twitches or cramps during the day or night
  • Unable to fall asleep, but then unable to wake up in the morning

If you have more than one of the "symptoms" described above, then you need rest, not workouts. Skip a day or two, and go to bed early each night. As soon as you feel refreshed and eager to get back at it, do so. If any of these symptoms drag on for more than a couple of weeks, I recommend you speak to your doctor about them.

Remember, during this phase you hold frequency steady and always keep intensity set at "low". Duration is built up over about 2-3 months, ideally (shorter if you are young and/or generally fit, longer if you are the opposite).

(On a personal note: I am still not running due to piriformis syndrome. I’ve now been off for almost 4 months, making this one of the longest layoffs of my 31 year running career. I am in biweekly sessions of physical therapy, and will see the doctor again in about 3 weeks. At this point, I’ve written off 2009 as a bad running year, and now just want to get back to some kind of running, ANY kind of running! I’m doing the recommended exercises daily, and trying to be patient. If there is a lesson to be learned through all of this, it is to see the big picture and to take care of the little things that will help me heal and then help keep me uninjured when I finally start running again.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


In a previous post, I outlined the four basic principles of endurance training:
1. Frequency
2. Duration
3. Intensity
4. Periodization

Today, I'd like to spend some time discussing Frequency.

On it's surface, the concept of frequency seems rather simple. It's just the number of times that you train during any given period of time. We runners typically speak in terms of days per week, but elite runners will likely talk about sessions or runs per week. For example, when I was younger and fit (and brash and foolish), I would train 8-10 times per week. That would include 8 or 9 runs, plus a bit of cycling or swimming. Of course, that meant that I was training more than once per day on a few days each week, thus the need to talk about frequency in terms of sessions per week.

Frequency is the baseline measurement for endurance training. You can't build any endurance at all without at least a moderate frequency of training sessions. Once per month won't do it, even if you think you can force yourself to do some kind of incredibly hard workout. The stress-response cycle that I have discussed here simply needs repetition in order to be effective.

To build your training program, you begin by holding both duration and intensity at a specific level, and work only on frequency. There is no exact formula for how to build up frequency, nor is there a perfect rule for the number of training sessions per week. Your experience will likely be your guide (but having an experienced coach would be the best approach). Even without specific instructions, the rule of thumb is to build any kind of training slowly and gradually. Let's get specific.

I am currently not running at all, as I work with doctors to correct and heal my injury. My frequency is zero sessions per week. When I begin running again, I will probably start by doing some very low-intensity, short-duration runs 2-3 times the first week (I anticipate running about 2-3 miles at (8:30 to 9:00 per mile pace). Assuming those go well, I will then proceed to add one more session per week, each week or two, until I'm up to six sessions per week. Full disclosure: for me, I'll probably aim to run 4-5 times per week, and cross-train (cycle or swim) once or twice per week. This formula should work for me, in part because it is based on my 31 years of consistent running (that is, I should bounce back fairly quickly). In contrast, if you are just beginning a running program for the first time, I'd recommend starting with only 1-2 sessions per week (even shorter and slower than me), and changing the frequency much more slowly, perhaps by adding one session only after keeping frequency steady for 3-4 weeks. Please note that neither I nor the hypothetical beginner will change the duration or intensity of our runs during this early build-up phase. We will keep our runs at low-intensity and short duration while we work solely on increasing frequency.

But how frequent is "frequent enough"? I wish I had a simple answer. It depends in part on your goals, and in part on your body's capacity to adapt to a training load. If your goals are based purely on losing some weight and pleasing your physician, one session every two days is probably adequate for your base frequency. If your goals are to run races up to and including the marathon, you are simply going to need to set your frequency at 6-7 sessions per week, with at least 5 of those as running workouts (the others can be cross-training). If you are looking to win your state championship, or aiming even higher, then you are going to need the dedication and capacity to train more than 7 times per week. Whatever your goals, your first step is to set your frequency at the level you need, before changing anything else in your training.

Frequency is the foundation. Next up, we'll talk about how to make changes in duration, building upon the groundwork of your frequency.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Periodization controversy?

Last night, while perusing the September 2009 issue of Runner's World, I came across an article by Bob Cooper titled "The Rules Revisited". I usually like these kind of articles, in which old and accepted wisdom is reviewed and sometimes debunked based on the latest research findings. This is most-common with ideas about nutrition, so it's good to keep on top of what's new. However, under the sub-heading "Build to a Peak", the claim is made that runners can "Train the same year-round". What?!

This contradicts what I started to write about in my previous post. Let's explore that.

Periodization is not only conventional wisdom, it's backed by research study after research study. As the author states, "No training system is more widely accepted". However, he then goes on to note that "critics say that all training elements can be woven into a one- or two-week cycle that's repeated throughout the year." He also quotes coach Scott Simmons, who seems to think that you can keep increasing your training load infinitely, "As you become fitter you recover faster, so you can do harder workouts ... Why should you ever cease development and start over again?"

Well, he's quite the optimist, isn't he? I hope he only coaches young, strong runners, and then only for a short period of time. His recommendations are a recipe for disappointment and/or disaster for most of us. In the least they will lead to staleness and require much more context, but in the worst case scenario they are irresponsible and may lead a lot of inexperienced runners to think that they can just keep ramping up their training forever, next stop the Olympics!

Sorry, but life just doesn't work that way. If you keep on building up and building up over an extended period of time, you will either (a) plateau - reach a spot where any kind of training doesn't make you even the least bit faster, or (b) crash and burn - end up injured and/or wiped out by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or something of that ilk. It is quite naive to think that you don't need to plan for the rest you need.

Another issue I have with this point of view that is that it isn't the kind of training program that will help individual runners achieve peak performances. If what you want is to be basically fit and mediocre, then go ahead and train the same way all the time. Sadly, perhaps that is the goal we now aspire to as a culture, let's not strive against our perceived limits to see how far we can go, instead let's all just plod along at a medium-effort-level like a herd of sheep. After all, everyone gets a medal now, don't they? Ironically, in the same issue of the magazine is an ad by Pearl Izumi, where they riff on the idea that even though marathon participation has increased a lot over the past 30 years, the average finisher's time now is over an hour slower than it used to be. Yeah, but everyone gets medals!

At the end of the article, in the fine print, Simmons contradicts himself and admits "Most people need some time off, if only for the mental break ..." Yeah, right, mental break. How about resting appropriately in order to avoid complete physical collapse?

The purpose of periodization is to plan ahead, proactively, for the times in your calendar when you will push yourself to your limits as well as the times that you will recover. The basic precept of endurance training is a simple stress-response formula: you stress the body, it adapts, you stress it again, it adapts, etc. But this is not an infinite cycle. Any stress, if applied over and over endlessly, will break down a system. Even if that system is strong and holds up for a long time, eventually something will give. What goes up, must come down.

I am an advocate for periodization based both on my reading of the literature and anecdotal experience. Not mention the fact that it's simply logical. For a parallel illustration: In long-distance horse races, a veterinarian is on hand at various check-points to monitor the health of the horses, because the poor things are so well-trained that if you just keep whipping them and riding them for long enough, they will dutifully follow your orders until they are dead. That's right, dead. Don't be a slave to your training program or allow a coach to ride you into the ground like one of those poor horses. Build in the rest you need to keep yourself healthy and ready for the next build up in your training. Life is about cycles, ups and downs, waxing and waning. It's the natural rhythm of things. Embrace it.

And be wary of those who claim to debunk all forms of common wisdom. It's fine and necessary to question orthodoxy in order to make sure it holds up under actual research, but we should never lose sight of the fact that some wisdom is actually rather wise.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Training: the overview

Note: in an earlier post, I mentioned that I would muse a bit about training. Should make for some interesting posts. To increase relevancy, I think I'll first write about the general principles, and then try to apply them to my situation when I return to running. Notice I said "when" and not "if". I hope I'm right about that. Even if it takes me a while to get back, this information should be at least somewhat informative. Let me know what you think.

Distance running is an endurance sport. As such, training is necessary for a distance runner to improve his or her performance. I'm sure that there are a very few people who could run quite well on little or no training, but for the rest of us it is pretty simple: if you train, you run better.

But what is "training"? How do you plan your training, or do you need to plan it at all? Isn't it just running? Fair questions. Not sure I will answer them to your satisfaction, but here is the way that I conceptualize it:

Becoming a better athlete in any endurance sport through training is based on four basic principles. I'll introduce each here, then address them one-at-a-time in upcoming posts.

The four principles are:
1. Frequency
2. Duration
3. Intensity
4. Periodization

Frequency is simply the number of times that you train within any given period of time (we typically discuss this in terms of workouts per week).

Duration is the amount of time you spend, per workout. Notice that I am focusing on duration here, not distance. Practically speaking, duration will typically range between 20 minutes and 2-3 hours.

Intensity is the amount of effort you expend in a workout. It will range from low intensity (walking or easy jogging) to high intensity (running at or near 100% of your maximum in short burst intervals called "repeats").

Periodization is the way in which you schedule your workouts over longer periods of time. We typically speak in terms of several weeks, or even years. Periodization more-specifically refers to how you weave together the previous three (Frequency, Duration, Intensity) along with periods of rest and recovery to maximize your potential. An effective training plan will incorporate periods of building up and periods of backing off, on one, two, or all three variables.

Let me try to put this into concrete terms by using an example. Let's say a runner looks at her calendar in January wondering how to train for a fall marathon. Let's assume that she's been running about 4 times per week for 30 minutes per run at a comfortable pace. Let's also assume she's clever and understands the four principles of endurance training.

To plan her year, she will begin with a period focused on frequency, holding duration and intensity relatively constant. In other words, she'll first get herself up to 5-6 days per week for 30 minutes at a comfortable pace. This period won't take long, about one or two months.

Next, she begins making changes to duration. She is still building strength, and not so concerned about speed, so she keeps intensity low, but begins to stretch at least one weekly run for more than 30 minutes. She's smart, so she does this gradually week by week until about 3 months have passed, and she's running 6 times per week, 4 times for 30-40 minutes, once for an hour, and another for over an hour. In addition, during those 3 months, she has established a periodic cycle in which she builds up her duration about 5% per week for three consecutive weeks, then drops back down for one week to rest and recover. She has laid a foundation of strength, aerobic conditioning, and endurance.

Now it's time to tinker with intensity. Up until now, the changes she has made to her running have been relatively low-risk. She's running more often, and going longer, but it's all been at a comfortable intensity and she's never really out of breath or feeling particularly stressed. However, to maximize her potential, she needs to start pushing her limits a bit. She starts with a period of aerobic threshold training, where once or twice per week she runs a faster pace, but one during which she can still talk (but only 2-3 syllables at a time). Again, she follows the cycle of three weeks of increasing intensity, then backing off for one week to recover. Another month passes.

It's now summer time, and her race is only 3 months away. She plans to increase intensity once per week, by running a set of intervals at faster than her 10k race pace. (Note: I'll talk about these various kinds of workouts in a later post). She is training for a marathon, so she also needs to add a long training run of more than 90 minutes about once per week. She will work her way up to a 3 hour weekly long run before the marathon. This period of training will be the hardest of the year, and is most-likely to lead to injury, but is necessary if she wants to peak for her race.

Following her race (let's just say that she ran strong and beat her previous best by 15 minutes), she knows that it's time for a period of rest and recovery, an "off-season". Otherwise, if she were to jump right back into training, the likelihood of injury and/or illness is very high. She knows she's fit, and it's hard not to be right back out there every day, but she has long-term goals and realizes that rest is just as important as work. When December rolls around, she looks back over her year and makes a similar plan for the next, perhaps slightly increasing frequency, duration, and intensity over the year before (because she is stronger and more experienced), or possibly cutting back on those variables if she knows that she's been pushing herself hard for 2-3 years and it's time to back off for one year, maybe skip a fall marathon, to ensure that she can be a runner for many years to come.

Of course, this is a vast over-simplification, but it begins to illustrate the basic concepts in action. If you are self-coached, it's important to think this through from a high-level, and map out the periods of training for your year. If you have a coach, make sure to talk to him or her about how these principles are being applied for each workout. I've often said, a coach should be comfortable in answering the question "Why this workout today?" in honest and direct terms that are informed by a long-term strategy. If not, then it's time to find another coach.

More to come, on each principle and the kind of workouts that fit with each, along with an outline for how I'll train when I can begin running again.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Gods Must Be Angry

Not sure what I've done this year to infuriate the pantheon of deities who overlook athletics, but my punishments never seem to cease. Call me Prometheus.

So, I still can't run, not at all. Last time I tried, my piriformis went on strike, and convinced all of its neighboring muscles to join the picket line. Traitors!

This leaves me limited to cycling, which isn't a bad endeavor, really. Except that cycling in NYC is bit like living in a really bad video game (credit for this concept goes to an old friend and cyclist, John Barrett). At the controls of your 15 pound pedaled steed, you do your best to remain upright (and alive) as you dodge pot holes, taxis, buses, kids on scooters, parked car doors opening into your path, manhole covers, construction sites, garbage, broken glass, brain-dead pedestrians, zombie joggers with iPod headphones blaring who never look before turning, overly-entitled dog-walkers wearing their perpetual scowls (what is it that makes dog owners in NYC so on-edge all of the time?), take out delivery guys on rusty old bikes going the wrong way, homeless crazies who toss things at you, cops, firemen, pigeons, squirrels, puddles, horse carriages, cars, tourists, other cyclists, and ill-timed stoplights. Whew!

Now, even if you can put yourself on hyper-alert and manage to enjoy a ride with all of that chaos going on around you, cycling offers one more challenge: weather.

I can *run* in any kind of weather, believe me. Nothing ever stops me. They say when it comes to running, there is no such thing as bad weather, just choosing the wrong gear. But cycling in the rain is akin to being blasted with a fire hose, from a polluted water hydrant. I swear, I would get *less* wet if I just jumped into a swimming pool.

Seems every single time I gear up for a long-ish ride this summer, the clouds immediately roll in, the thunder peals, and the rain pummels me from above. Not to complain, but come on! Can't I just have one or two convenient hours in the sun now and then?

I would throw myself on the proverbial ground and beg mercy from those mighty immortals who have deemed this the year to spoil my every attempt at running and to drench me on every bike ride ... but I predict they'd just make it rain (or maybe hail) on me while I was prone before them, and enjoy another chuckle at my expense.

Anybody have a dry helmet I can borrow?