In the weeks leading up to April's Boston Marathon, in which he finished third, American elite runner Ryan Hall logged hundreds of miles over the mountainous roads of Mammoth Lakes, California. The workouts that mattered the most? His weekly tempo runs, which got as long as 18 miles.
"I knew they were going to get me ready for the big show and tell me where my fitness was at," says Hall. "And they were definitely something I got nervous for, which was great practice, because you're going to have all that nervousness before the marathon."
Elite runners know that it's the most challenging workouts that build the speed, power and efficiency they need to get across the finish line — hopefully first. Of course, intense workouts aren't the sole domain of hardcore racers – they're for anyone who wants to get faster and stronger.
But while professional runners like Hall might have several quality sessions in a week, chances are you're struggling to fit one in. Which makes it even more important that your hard day really counts. Here's how to set yourself up for success…
Elite Secret # 1: Get Strong
It's strength and conditioning, particularly around the ankles, knees and hips, that separates elites from mere mortals, according to British distance legend Liz McColgan, who has set up a new elite training facility in her home town of Carnoustie, Scotland.
"When you're tired, the first thing to go is your form – when I was gearing up for big races I'd almost focus more on this than my running. It means you're strong even when you're exhausted, particularly towards the end of races," she says.
DO IT YOURSELF: Three times a week spend five minutes doing each of the following exercises:
- Stair step-ups Ascend two to three large stairs very slowly, then step back to your starting point, contracting your glutes, quads and calves as you do.
- One-legged squats Using your back foot for balance, lower your front leg so your upper thigh is parallel to the floor. Keep your knee behind your front foot. Press back to the start position.
- Walking drills Mimic an exaggerated running action as slowly as possible, driving your knee and hip through and keeping everything in line. "Once you've mastered these, start holding light weights in your hands,"
Elite Secret # 2: Get Loose
Elite runners take their warm-up seriously. "You need to spend at least 20 to 30 minutes warming up, jogging two to three miles interspersed with dynamic strides and drills," says Richard Holt, elite coach at momentumsports.co.uk.
"You want optimal flexibility and power from the first step – come the end you'll actually have more energy reserves as you'll have run more efficiently."
This longer routine gets you in the zone. "You can run through a mental checklist of your race strategy as you warm up."
DO IT YOURSELF: Start your warm-up prep the night before. "Write down a realistic timetable of where you're hoping to be and when, speak to the race organisers about parking and other logistics, and block in quality time to spend doing a slow, gradual warm-up," says Holt.
And even when you're not racing, don't think you can dive straight in to a run – you're just as likely to tear cold muscles and ligaments in weekly speed or tempo sessions, so factor in a 10-minute warm-up then, too.
Elite Secret # 3: Pace The Workout
Going out too fast in both training and racing is the undoing of many talented runners, says Dave Saker, middle-distance coach at the University of Bath. "Marilyn Okoro, who I used to train, did a 56-second first lap in the recent indoor 800m World Championships and completely blew up," he explains.
Get into the habit of 'feeling' pace – try running at threshold or race pace without looking at your watch. "It comes through experience, but being able to switch up or down according to how your body feels is what separates winners from losers."
DO IT YOURSELF: Always treat your first interval as a tester to show you can hit your splits, and up the pace later in the session when you've got a better feel for the run, recommends Saker.
"Psychologically, it's better to be consistent than to burn out," he explains. "If you can make a habit of finishing hard, it'll stand you in good stead in a race. Likewise, starting in a controlled way will also provide an excellent platform to build on."
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