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.
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."
Cross-train for fitness
Conventional Thinking: Cross-training is fine on recovery days, but hard efforts should always be running workouts.
Uncommon Wisdom: Cross-training (especially cycling) can effectively improve your running performance.
Cross-training has slowly crept into runners' lives over the last two decades. First we started doing it to stay in shape while sidelined with running injuries, or maybe to try a triathlon. Now we do it even when we're not injured – to rest muscles and joints on non-running days – as a low-impact aerobic workout. But most coaches and runners still believe that when it comes to getting into better running shape, nothing measures up to running.
Challenging this assumption is Richard Gibbens, an exercise scientist (powerrunning.com). "The principle of specificity teaches us that nothing is better for running than running," he says. "But research studies that examined this found that high-intensity cross-training workouts that use the same muscle groups as running may be just as effective in improving running performance."
Like Jeff Galloway and Bill Pierce, Gibbens also believes that the average runner need only run three days a week – choosing among long runs, tempo runs and speedwork – and spend two or three of the remaining days doing cross-training or strength-training workouts.
Should you try it?
Definitely, if you like to ride. Two studies have directly compared run-only and run/bike training. In both studies, average to advanced runners did five to six weeks of training in separate run-only or run/bike groups, which included running or cycling speedwork. Both studies produced the same result: no significant difference in 5K times at the end of the study between the run-only and run/bike subjects. Not to mention the benefits that mixing up your training with different disciplines can have on your performance. Just a few of these benefits include enhanced motivation due to the variety in your training and injury prevention thanks to the low-impact nature of cross-training.
Build those muscles
Conventional Thinking: Strength training will make you a better runner.
Uncommon Wisdom: Skip the gym; you don't run on your arms.
If you're a runner, you need to go to the gym at least twice a week – not for the cardio machines, but to work on your upper- and lower-body strength.
Not according to Toby Tanser, who wrote More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way (£8, Westholme Publishing) after 10 years of training with and helping coach top Kenyans.
"Kenya's Rift Valley is where the highest concentration of world-class distance runners live, and for the vast majority of them, conventional strength training is not an option," Tanser says. "Most develop massive core strength doing farm work from an early age, and they get further strength from running the soft, rutted dirt roads of Kenya. People speculate that [three-time London Marathon champion] Martin Lel or [2008 Olympic marathon champion] Sammy Wanjiru might run faster with gym work. But they might also run slower."
Tanser believes that a runner's arms are needed only for balance, so an active lifestyle is all that's needed for arm strength, and that legs are best strengthened with running and plyometric drills. "Lel's and Wanjiru's legs are like coiled springs; when they run they barely touch the ground," he says. "When a runner does a lot of gym work, it has a dampening effect on the springs. Watching runners go by in the park, I can spot which ones have gym memberships because their stride is out of line. Those who do nothing but run have pure symmetry because they have only strengthened the muscles needed for running."
Should you try it?
Strength training offers many benefits – like better health, weight control and a better-looking bod – so there are plenty of reasons to keep doing it if you enjoy it. But if fitting in strength workouts is hard for you, spend your time on the roads rather than in the gym. Keep your crucial core strength intact with crunches.
Remember to stretch
Conventional Thinking: Regular stretching is important.
Uncommon Wisdom: Stretching is worthless for distance runners.
Whether you stretch or not, you probably assume it's an important part of running. Doesn't it make you more flexible, more injury-resistant, even faster? Well if that's all true, why is it that many Kenyans don't stretch? Why was legendary coach Arthur Lydiard not a fan of stretching? Why does coach and former Olympian Jeff Galloway say, "In my experience runners who stretch are injured more often, and when they stop stretching the injuries often go away"? And why do studies keep popping up that show stretching may cause as many injuries as it prevents?
"Most runners have an unjustified faith in the benefits of stretching," says Paul Ingraham, a runner, massage therapist and health journalist (saveyourself.ca) based in Vancouver, Canada. "Plentiful research has shown that stretching doesn't help you warm up, ease muscle soreness, prevent injury or even enhance performance. In fact, no measurable, significant benefit of stretching has ever been proven," he adds.
And science backs him up. In reviews of the scientific literature on stretching in 1999 and 2002, published in the British Medical Journal and the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, stretching was found to have no statistically significant effect on reducing muscle soreness or injuries. A 2008 study of 1,020 soldiers – where half stretched and half didn't – found no difference in the frequency of injuries.
Should you try it?
Ingraham's message is that you don't need to feel guilty if you do little or no stretching. But he admits that he still stretches some, simply because it feels good. If you're careful and enjoy stretching, you don't have to stop either. But if you're not sure how to stretch, don't have time or hate doing it, don't bother.
Make time for massage
Conventional Thinking: Get regular massages because they increase blood flow to the muscles and remove waste products.
Uncommon Wisdom: Massages may decrease blood flow and waste-product removal.
Ever since 'rubbers' rubbed down marathon runners a century
ago, massage has been embraced as a valuable recovery tool. Many athletes believe massage increases blood flow
to the muscles and removes waste products. But this assumption had
never been scientifically tested during a post-exercise massage – until a recent Canadian study.
"The study results clearly identified that post-exercise massage is not able to improve muscle blood flow and remove products of exercise that affect muscle performance," says study co-author Victoria Wiltshire, of Ontario's Queen's University. "If it has muscle-recovery benefits for runners, it comes from other mechanisms. The study showed that blood flow and waste-product removal from the exercised muscles were impaired rather than enhanced by massage."
Should you try it?
While massage may not rub out your post-run muscle aches, studies have found that massage reduces anxiety and lowers blood pressure, among other benefits, so it's not entirely useless.
Conventional Thinking: Emphasise carbs when you're marathon training, especially
before and during long runs.
Uncommon Wisdom: Do some long runs in a carb-depleted state.
Ever since carbohydrate-loading caught on decades ago, carbs have been the focus of nutrition advice for marathon runners. You can burn 2,300 calories on a 20-mile run, and the carb is the most readily converted fuel source, so it makes perfect sense to stuff in all you can – in liquid, solid or gel form – in the hours before and during long runs. Why then does Greg McMillan (mcmillanrunning.com), an exercise physiologist and coach, suggest that you do long runs without taking in any pre-run or on-the-run carbs? Isn't that like leaving the petrol station for a long drive with a half-empty tank?
"You need to teach your body to operate with low glucose stores," McMillan says, "because that's what you'll be facing in the later miles of a marathon." He recommends that marathon runners do their long, steady runs in a carb-deprived state, by skipping carbs before and throughout the run. "This will improve your ability to burn fat and store glycogen, which is pivotal in the marathon. By not taking in carbohydrate drinks or energy gels during the run, you're giving your body no choice but to go to fat-burning. You will feel fatigued near the end, but that's necessary if you want to get stronger."
Should you try it?
Don't go out on your next 20-miler in a carb-depleted state. Instead, wean yourself from carbs by consuming them less and less before and during long runs to train your body to manage without them, says McMillan. Carry a gel or stash a bottle of sports drink along your route as insurance against an energy crash.
Conventional Thinking: Drink lots of water.
Uncommon Wisdom: Drink only when you're thirsty.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. You're deluged by the message to drink lots of water every day. But is it really necessary to be sipping from a bottle all the time, at your desk or on a hard run?
"Humans evolved to drink according to the dictates of thirst – before, during and after exercise," says Tim Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and author of The Lore of Running (£14.99, Human Kinetics). "That's the way all creatures that have been studied are known to function, and there's no reason to believe that humans should be exempted from this fundamental biological law. But for decades we've been told that thirst is not an accurate measure of fluid requirements – especially during exercise; that if you wait for thirst to develop, it's ‘too late' and that during exercise you should ‘drink as much as tolerable'."
The South African medical scientist is among the loudest voices calling for the re-education of runners because of exercise-associated hyponaetremia (also known as water intoxication), which has been blamed for at least 12 deaths and 1,500 illnesses worldwide. These are cases of over-hydration, which can cause brain swelling, headaches and neurological responses like confusion, seizures and even coma – it's an extremely serious condition. In contrast, Noakes says, there is no clear evidence that moderate levels of dehydration pose health dangers during exercise. "Sanity will only return when runners act according to their body's cues during exercise," he says.
Should you try it?
Aren't we supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day? Nonsense, says America's Institute of Medicine, which recommends that you heed your thirst. The ‘eight glasses' guideline came out of recommendations of daily water intake – but the average person gets most of that from water content in food and beverages. Which isn't to say you shouldn't take in fluids on long or hot runs, and of course you must make sure you do drink enough water to stay hydrated. But it should be a response to thirst – not a lifestyle.
Shoes can correct problems
Conventional Thinking: Run in shoes with lots of cushioning to protect your joints and motion-control features to correct your gait.
Uncommon Wisdom: The less cushioning and fewer stability features in a shoe, the better, because they only impede the connection between feet and ground.
Running shoes tended to be cardboard-thin until about 1970, when the shift towards beefier, more elaborate running-shoe models began. "Most running-shoe soles today are simply too thick and the motion-control features too restrictive," says Dr Phil Maffetone, author of In Fitness and In Health (£12, Booksurge) and a former running and triathlon coach. "The main problem with these shoes is that they prevent the nerve endings on your feet from sensing the gravitational stresses of each footstrike and making small adjustments with each stride to disperse the stress. Research has shown that so-called protective features actually increase injury frequency."
Some minimalists take it a step further by advocating barefoot running, but Maffetone notes that this is impractical for most runners. Minimalist shoes – usually called lightweight trainers, performance shoes or racing flats – have the added advantage of being lighter. "All shoe companies make good shoes," says Maffetone, "but it's best to avoid the over-supported, over-cushioned models."
Should you try it?
Ron Hill, a three-time Olympian, used to run barefoot but switched to lightweight shoes after stepping on a shard of glass. "With today's range of materials," he says, "you can find lightweight shoes that offer cushioning and protection." Alternate light shoes with your regular trainers for a few weeks to get used to less support and to see if they're right for you.