Monday, September 21, 2009


Now that we've discussed the first two principles of training, it's time to get more complicated by adding intensity.

In essence, intensity is really just how 'hard' you train. Once you've laid in a base of frequent and appropriate-duration training, the truth is that you can just maintain that and you'll be fairly fit and probably make your physician very happy! Frequent aerobic exercise is great for your heart and lungs, burns calories, builds muscle, and recent studies suggest that it even benefits brain function. That's terrific.

The equation starts getting complicated if your goal is for something more: peak performance. In other words, just being fairly fit isn't the goal that you strive for; instead, you want to start testing the limits of your current ability as an athlete. In order to do this, you need to start adding some higher intensity training to your routine.

There are many, many books written on training as a runner. Up until this point in my reflections, most of them agree about 99% ... training starts with a base. But when it moves into a phase where intensity is added, the authors/coaches/researchers start to branch in different directions. Some suggest an almost-singular focus on running fast, to the exclusion of easier running. Others suggest simply adding in some fast running, in a rather unstructured way. Others publish multi-page charts showing you exactly what to run every day until you achieve a particular goal. All of these approaches, along with still others, are carefully plotted out, based on experience and research, and (frankly) probably work fairly well for at least some subset of runners. In other words, adding intensity, through whatever pattern or method you choose, will help you run faster.

But there is a warning here: adding intensity significantly increases your risk of injury. For that reason, I am going to advocate for a particular path or series of steps that I recommend you follow in order to add intensity. Is my "method" any better than that of the others? Possibly, for some of you, and possibly not for others of you. I am here to tell you that one method, one plan, one approach is simply not going to apply to everyone, period. As you gain experience as a runner/athlete, you will begin to understand what works best for you, and you will make adjustments to your training based on that understanding. No one, without working with you as a coach for years, is able to blindly recommend a perfect training program. 'Nuff said on that.

I advocate for a slow, methodical approach. I believe this will reduce your risk of injury, and maximize the chance that these workouts will build toward a peak without become drudgery. Of course, I'm aiming primarily at "working adults" here, not at high school or college athletes, or world champions (although this approach might be good for any of them, if they have the time to invest in it). I'm also aiming toward "lifetime runners", or those of us who would like to run and keep running. If your goal is to burn hot and short, try something else.

The basic pattern would be:
1. Tempo (2 months)
2. Intervals and hill repeats (2 months)
3. Repeats (1 month)
4. Peak race
5. Recovery (1 month)

Please note: I will write more about the time frames and how to piece together a year when I cover periodization in an upcoming post.

Tempo-paced running is also known as aerobic threshold training. It involves running at 90-95% of your maximum effort, which can be thought of as a "comfortably hard" pace (about 12-20 seconds per mile slower than 10k race pace). Tempo runs can be steady effort or intervals of 1-2 miles, with 1-2 minutes of rest (jogging) between each. I recommend that you limit tempo-paced running to about 10% of your total weekly mileage.

Intervals and hill repeats
Intervals describe running hard (but not all-out) for a specified time or distance, with a full recovery between each interval. Generally speaking, if you are running intervals at the correct pace, it should take about the same duration as the interval for you to regain your breath and bring your heart rate back down to an easy, aerobic level. Intervals are run at a pace that is about the same as your race pace for a 2 or 3 mile distance. In other words, it's nearly as hard as you can run without 'sprinting'. Hill repeats are a variation on intervals, in which you simply run them uphill. It's possible that uphill repeats will need slightly longer recovery periods. (one quick note on recovery periods: while you might want to stand around panting - or flop on the ground - don't do it ... keep moving, even if it's just at a stiff-legged shuffle. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but trust me it's best to keep moving - jogging if you can).

Repeats are special form of intervals, that are very fast, very hard, and rather short. They are run as close to "all-out" as you can achieve. Full recovery will typically take a much longer duration than the repeat itself (2 or 3 times longer; for example, if you run really hard for 30 seconds, you will need at least 1:00 to recover, but probably would do better with a 2:00 recovery). Let's face it, repeats are really hard to do. If you can do them with a group, it will help.

Peak race and Recovery
Once you have worked through these phases of intensity, you are ready to run your best race in months, then to take a nice long time (at least a month) to let your body recover from all of this work. Recovery means going back to the base-building workouts, and re-focusing just on frequency and duration for awhile. We'll get into this in more detail soon.

To reiterate: you add intensity to your workouts in order to make yourself faster and to strive for the best performance you can achieve. Intensity helps you get there, or it breaks you down in the process. Monitor yourself carefully, and back off if injury or exhaustion creeps in. However, if you give yourself the right amount of time to adjust to it, running harder and harder will reap benefits in your racing.

Subtext: for any of you who have been wondering how my own running has been coming along, I am loathe to admit it but I am still injured. Whatever I've done to my hip, and the diagnoses keep shifting slightly, it's a mess in there. Multiple injections have improved it, but it's not healed. I haven't even been biking, on the recommendation of my physician, so I'm just a lazy couch potato. It's awful. I am trying to follow medical advice and hope to return to running soon. When I do, it will be my path to follow my own advice put forth here. Hopefully, in future posts, I can use myself as an example of how to apply these principles of training. Stay tuned.