Enduring Questions - The Perfect Training Plan

Devising training sessions is easy. Anyone can come up with a plan that sounds great. Take my old high school track coach, for example.

Way back in the mid-1960s, he ordered us distance runners to do 10x400 metres, each in 60 seconds. That’s what US high school sensation Jim Ryun was doing, and Coach wanted us to be like Jim. Trouble was, we weren’t Jim, and most of us couldn’t even do 400 metres once at Jim’s pace.

Runners don’t need random, isolated sessions; we need individualised, realistic training plans. For the last three decades, exercise physiologist Jack Daniels has set the standard for designing such plans. Along the way he’s worked with dozens of elite athletes, ranging from Ryun (Daniels helped him prepare for the high altitude of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics) to Joan Samuelson, Alberto Salazar and Peter Gilmore, the unsung American marathon runner who ran 2:12:45 at Boston last April. Daniels has also coached the less fleet of foot, including small-college runners at Cortland State University in New York.

Since his book Daniels’ Running Formula was published in 1998, many high school and college coaches have adopted the Daniels approach. I believe the general upswing in American distance running success over the last decade is partly a result of the wider assimilation of his methods.

Last year I had a chance to visit Daniels in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he’s now the head distance coach at the High Altitude Training Center at Northern Arizona University. We talked about his book, his training schedules and his philosophy, but mostly I peppered him with questions. He answered many by reaching for the bulging folders in a nearby filing cabinet. “I studied that back in the 1960s [or 1970s or 1980s], and I’ve got the answer right here,” he would say. “Some day I’ve got to get this data published.”

The goal behind my visit was to produce a sort of simplified Daniels’ Running Formula. A magazine column can’t replace a 280-page book (and I highly recommend the book), but you can use the following rules to create your own individualised training plan.

Run no farther or faster than you have to
In other words, strive for optimal training benefits with the least amount of work. This is the cardinal rule of Daniels’s training philosophy. As he likes to put it: “If I said that you could run a five-minute mile with one programme that took 30 miles a week or another programme that took 80 miles a week, which would you choose?” Daniels tries to cut out the waste, maximising improvement and minimising injuries. Also, whenever you do a session, know what you’re trying to achieve. Is it endurance? Speed? Running economy? You should know the answer before you begin to sweat.

Avoid injuries
Duh. Who doesn’t pay homage to this old chestnut? But it’s easier said than done. To help you escape the trap of overuse injuries, Daniels offers the following formula: stick with your current weekly mileage for at least three weeks. Then, if your training feels comfortable, you can increase the mileage by the number of runs you are doing per week (that is, if you’re doing four runs, you can increase by four miles).

Follow a progressive training programme that gradually builds to a racing peak
Daniels’s ideal training plan lasts 24 weeks or longer, and moves steadily from one emphasis to another: easy runs to repetition sessions to interval training to tempo training. But he realises that many runners don’t plan far enough ahead to follow long-term training programmes, so in Daniels’ Running Formula he has developed sophisticated variations on the basic approach.

Pump up your stride rate to 180 per minute
At the 1984 Olympics, Daniels and his wife, Nancy, analysed the stride frequencies of runners from 800m to the marathon. At distances from 5,000m on, the top runners, both men and women, were remarkably consistent: they ran with a stride rate of about 180 strides per minute.

Run 75-80 per cent of your weekly mileage at a relaxed (EZ) pace
This kind of running builds your basic aerobic capacity, and strengthens the key running muscles, joints and ligaments. Your easy pace is equivalent to your 5K race pace, plus 90 to 120 seconds per mile. (If you race 5Ks at eight-minute-mile pace, your EZ pace is 9:30 to 10:00-minute miles.)

Run a weekly long run that amounts to 25 to 40 per cent of your total distance for the week
If you’re running 20 miles a week, the long run can be up to eight miles (40 per cent). As your weekly mileage increases, the long run becomes a smaller percentage of your total miles.

Run about 12 per cent of your weekly mileage at your lactate threshold (LT) or tempo pace
When you run at LT pace, you enhance your running economy and your body’s ability to cope with increasing amounts of lactic acid. LT pace is your 5K pace, plus 25 to 45 seconds per mile.

Run about eight per cent of your weekly mileage at your interval (INT) pace
This pace improves your VO2 max and your ability to run at a fast pace. Your INT pace is 5K pace, minus 10 to 20 seconds per mile.

Run two per cent of your weekly mileage at your repetition (REP) pace
This pace improves your power, your speed, your stride frequency and your relaxation while running fast. Your REP pace equals your 5K pace, minus 40 to 80 seconds per mile. You’ll do most of your REP running as strides after easy runs or as fast 200m repetitions.

Stay positive
Remember: when you have a good day, it’s no accident. You can’t fake it; these days represent your true capacity as a runner. On the other hand, bad days are flukes. They happen to everyone, and they mean almost nothing (unless you have a lot of them, and then you need to analyse what’s going wrong). Reward yourself mentally for your good days, and don’t obsess about the bad.