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Rick's Corner

Diversity in Training: The Importance of Balance in Speed Work

When I was working on my second book with Alberto Salazar, Alberto said something that really caught my editor’s attention.

Don’t always do the same speed workout, he said. Otherwise, you’ll be focusing too strongly on one physiological variable, such as VO2max, at the expense of the others. Also, different types of workouts build on each other.

In our book, we compared it to building a flight of stairs. “When I was targeting on racing 10Ks at a 4:25 pace,” Alberto said, “I needed to run repeat miles at 4:20s. But to do that, I had to be able to run 1,200 meters in about 3:08 to 3:10. That required a background of 800s in 2:02 to 2:04, which in turn required me to be comfortable with 59- to 60-second quarters. Those quarters drew on a base of 28- to 29-second 200s. “Without the 200s, I couldn’t have done the quarters, halves, 1,200s, or miles—and 4:25s on the 10K would have been impossible. The short intervals provided a base that supported the long ones.”

Recently, Greg McMillan told me something quite similar for an article I was writing for Running Times, on how to break through plateaus in marathon performance.

Marathoners he said, easily gravitate into a narrow range of training paces. “That’s what causes people to get stuck.”

For marathoners, he suggests, some of the speed work therefore needs to be faster than you think you need: all the way down to 200s, 300s, and 400s at about mile-PR pace or maybe a bit faster.

McMillan’s point is that your thinking should be something like this: “I’m not just training to be a marathon runner. I’m training to be a complete runner who’s getting ready for a marathon.”

This also applies to distances other than the marathon. The average runner doesn’t think you need a lot of short intervals for 5K and 10K. But I’ve seen instances where a few doses of 200s totally transform a 5K runner.

What’s happening physiologically is that before they start the short intervals, these people have all the aerobic horsepower in the world . . . but lack the muscle strength to make optimum use of it.

Many runners often think of short intervals as “speed” training, under the assumption that they improve raw speed by increasing turnover, etc. Others ignore them because they figure that running that fast merely serves to improve your kick: a lot of training effort for not a lot of benefit in longer races.

Both of these groups, though, are partially missing the point. Yes, short intervals may accomplish both of these. But they’re also like weight training for runners: a very specific type of weight training that focuses precisely on the muscles you’re using in racing.

Stronger muscles are more efficient, which means you’re getting more bang for your aerobic buck. In other words, you’re more efficient. And efficiency translates into greater speed at all distances. (OK, I don’t know if this applies to ultramarathoners, but I suspect it does, at least among the elite.)

Finding your ideal mix of paces takes practice in reading your body. You need more of the long stuff if aerobic horsepower is your limiting factor in a race. You need more of the short stuff if your legs feel too much like limp spaghetti noodles.

Even if your currently at near-optimum balance, you’re still like Alberto building his flight of stairs: you need some of each, at least occasionally. But you don’t have to build the stairs in strict bottom-to-top order. Instead, you can hop back and forth from one level to another, pounding in a nail here and a nail there, until the entire edifice is complete.

Whatever you do, beware of drifting into the same “maintenance” workout week after week. If you’re not careful, the foundation will decay out from under you and you’ll have to start the whole thing over again.

See this at http://running.richardalovett.com. If people want to come to my site, that’s great.

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