Running Rules Revisited (Preview)

Some coaches, scientists and other experts are challenging conventional thinking. Could their uncommon wisdom work for you? (non-subscriber preview)


Posted: 28 September 2009
by Bob Cooper


You've heard the usual recommendations for so long that you accept them as gospel. And most of the advice is solid. Who can argue with putting in mileage, peaking for races and stretching after a run?

But just because many coaches, sports scientists and other experts agree doesn't mean that there aren't others who think something wildly different. The challengers have logic and evidence to support their views, too, and if they eventually prevail, it wouldn't be the first time that the rules have changed.

In the first Olympic marathon at least one runner thought it was smart to drink wine during the race. We're not saying the challengers to conventional wisdom are right – or wrong. Only that their ideas are worth considering, because they may work for you. After all, in the 1896 marathon Spiridon Louis drank the wine. And he won.

Miles for marathons

Conventional Thinking: You have to put in lots of miles to run a good marathon.
Uncommon Wisdom: You can run minimal mileage and still hit a time goal.

Most marathon-training schedules require running five or six days per week, with total mileage of 40 to 60 miles. Two of the most successful training wizards think that's too much for many runners.

The marathon-training programme developed by former Olympian Jeff Galloway recommends that not only beginners, but also faster marathon runners, run just three to four days a week. Weekly mileage peaks at 31 to 41 miles, depending on your goal time. Galloway reports that 99 per cent of his plan participants reach the finish line. Bill Pierce, co-author of Run Less, Run Faster (£8.49, Rodale Publishing), similarly mandates only three running days per week, with a high-mileage week of 32 to 35 miles. More than two-thirds of the runners who've been tracked on that programme recorded PBs.

"Our programme doesn't only work for slower runners," says Galloway. "I've had runners break three hours on three runs a week who told me they couldn't do it when they ran more often." The signature features of his programme are regular walk breaks and a very long run/walk, which peaks at 26 to 29 miles. Pierce's programme emphasises faster running – speedwork, a tempo run and a faster long run – on three running days, plus two cross-training days. "The philosophy is that intensity is the primary factor needed to improve fitness," says Pierce. "Many runners have reported success with the programme after repeated failures with high-mileage schedules – and they find it easier to fit just three runs into their busy lives."

Should you try it?
These programmes seem well suited for overbooked or injury-prone runners. Studies and surveys of marathon runners have validated this approach by finding little correlation between weekly mileage and marathon performance, especially for novices – but a high correlation between high mileage and injury frequency.

Speed strategy

Conventional Thinking: Speed workouts should feature numerous repetitions with short recovery periods.
Uncommon Wisdom: Speed workouts can consist of just two repeats with a long recovery.

Most athletes think the proof you're a tough runner is that you take on speed workouts that are long and draining – the more repetitions and the shorter the recovery time, the tougher you are.

The Olympic legend Emil Zatopek inspired the trend in 1954 with epic sessions like 10 x 200 metres followed by 50 x 400 metres – a combined 13.67 miles of speedwork. Ambitious runners the world over have aspired to that imposing standard ever since, in a quest for that elusive PB.

Former US middle-distance athlete Suzy Favor-Hamilton and her coach Peter Tegen, however, didn't buy it. She ran tamer workouts like 4 x 800 metres with a four-minute recovery early in her season; later the workouts got even faster and the recovery periods longer. The one she's convinced was the most important in her career: 2 x 800 metres with a huge 15-minute rest interval.

What a wimp. But then how do you explain her being a three-time Olympian and seven-time US national champion? You explain that by how fast she ran those two 800s. On three occasions she ran both in 2:04, only eight seconds off the national record. "When I ran that workout well, I knew I was ready to race," says Favor-Hamilton, "where it always came down to holding a hard pace and having something left for the finish."

Should you try it?
You don't have to be an Olympian to benefit from the thinking of Olympians. "I've always been a believer in quality over quantity," says Favor-Hamilton. "Quantity wears you down, but quality builds you up." Next time you go to the track, instead of doing a typical workout – such as six 800-metre repeats at your 5K race pace with a two-minute rest – do Favor-Hamilton's two 800s with a 15-minute rest. Run the first 800m at your one-mile race pace and the second 800m all-out.

Build to a peak

Conventional Thinking: You should gradually build up to a training peak, starting with slow base work and adding speedwork, before you race.
Uncommon Wisdom: Train the same year-round.

Periodisation, popularised by the late coach Arthur Lydiard in the 1960s, is named for the programme's distinct periods of training that progressively lead to peak fitness: endurance-boosting base work when slow mileage is increased, a strength-building period focused on hill repeats, a speedwork period, a racing peak, and finally a recovery period before you start all over. No training system is more widely accepted.

But critics say that all key training elements can be woven into a one- or two-week cycle that's repeated throughout the year. This approach has proven successful for many runners, including Australian greats Ron Clarke, Derek Clayton and
Rob de Castella.

"Training can progress year-round by increasing your mileage, intensity or both," says running coach Scott Simmons. "As you become fitter you recover faster, so you can do harder workouts. But it makes no sense to decrease any training element – whether it's aerobic, anaerobic or strength training – as periodisation does. Why should you ever cease development and start over again?"

Should you try it?
Simmons recommends maintaining a continuous one-week training cycle that includes a long run, a tempo session and a speed workout. On the other days run easy, cross-train or rest. That said, he acknowledges that sticking to the same year-round training routine without a break is hard. "Most people need some time off, if only for the mental break," he says. "At least once a year, certainly after a marathon, cut back on mileage and cut out speedwork for a few weeks."

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