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.

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