Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 7 May 2006 05:44:46 -0400

Basic Training


Tell someone from outside the sport that I teach running classes, and the reaction goes something like this: "What's to teach? You put one foot in front of the other, remembering to alternate feet, and running takes care of itself."

That's true for the act or action of running. Most kids master it by the age of three.

But we runners know that running is much more than an act of self-propulsion. It's also an aerobic and athletic activity. We need to study how to exercise, train and race well, and then we must put the lessons into regular practice.

I teach activity classes for college-age students. These runners spend their limited time training, not listening to me talk.

My role as a teacher isn't to lecture but to structure the training. As class begins, I say little more than what the run is that day and how it helps.

My challenge is not to overwhelm the runners -- with mileage, speed or information. I take a low-key, low-tech approach to their training. The ingredients are simple, and the amounts of running are modest.

Recently I wrote about teaching pace-setting to the road racing class ("Setting the Pace," 4/23/06). The students saw only a few key phrases of that advice.

They receive, by e-mail after each class, a one-paragraph mini-lesson on some aspect of the sport. The earlier column told what I teach about pacing. The four lessons below tell the student-runners how their training plan comes together.


Most runs need to feel relatively easy. This is true whether you're a beginning racer or an elite athlete. (Of course, the definition of "easy" varies hugely for these groups; easy pace for the elite would be impossible for the beginner.) Training for the distance and pace of races and actually running these events is a prescription item, taken in proper, well-spaced doses. New racers are wise to limit themselves to one big day a week. On this day, run longer than normal (as long as the longest race distance but at a slower pace) or faster than normal on this day (as fast as the fastest race pace but for a shorter distance), or go to the starting line in a race (combining full distance at full pace). Experienced racers can put a long run AND a fast run into the same week, but don't want to squeeze both of these PLUS a race into one week.


Distance, unlike speed, is almost limitless. No matter what your level of talent, no matter how many years you have run, no matter how old your personal records are, the possibility of covering longer distances still exists. This helps explain the appeal of the marathon. First-year runners can take pride at finishing one in twice the time the leaders take to finish, and aging runners can feel good about going the distance an hour slower than their ancient PR. Not all runners can go faster, but just about anyone can run longer. It isn't a matter of talent, but only of pacing, patience and persistence. However, you can't take big leaps in distance all at once. The safe limit for progress is about 10 percent per week -- for instance, no more than one mile added to the recent 10-mile run.


A little bit of speed training goes a long way. In fact, a little bit is all you should do because, in excess, speed kills. Most runners can tolerate fast training that totals only about 10 percent of weekly mileage. This can come two major ways and one minor one. The first big way is as intervals -- a training session of short, fast runs with recovery breaks between. The other main way to train for speed is the tempo run -- at race pace or faster for a shorter distance. The smaller way to gain and maintain speed is with "strides" -- ending the warmup by striding out for a hundred yards or so, one to five times, at the top speed that you would ever race. Strides also have value at the finish of a relaxed run, as a reminder to push at the end of a race.


Pacing isn't just for a single run. It's also what you practice from day to day throughout the week. Some runs must be hard if you're training to race, but most must be easy to compensate for that effort. In other words, you run less than your best much of the time -- neither long nor fast. The easy runs may be the most important because they're the most frequent. You can calculate ideal pace for easy runs several ways: at least one minute per mile slower than you could race the same distance; or about 75 percent of maximum heart rate; or simply whatever feels comfortable, not too fast or too slow. The last of these guidelines is the simplest to use. What feels right usually is right.

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