Elite Training for Mortals: 5 Key Principles for Every Runner
Most of us are not going to do 110-mile weeks, but we can learn from elite examples and apply the same principles to become our best.
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Three of America’s top marathoners—Lindsay Flanagan (2:29), Dathan Ritzenhein (2:07), and Jared Ward (2:09)—recently contributed one-week training journals to Podium Runner in the leadup to the Boston Marathon. If you studied them closely (as I did), you might have noticed some common themes. And why wouldn’t you? Elite marathoning is a high-stakes game that has been around for well over a century, so it’s only to be expected that the most effective training practices are well-known and widely employed at this level.
These practices are not of mere academic interest to the competitive amateur runner. The pros may have certain genes we lack and may be able to handle more miles than we can, but they’re still human, and in general the same methods that work best for them work best for us—although many amateurs fall into less effective training patterns. Following are five key features of the training of Flanagan, Ritz, and Ward that you’ll want to emulate in your pursuit of personal bests.
Lots of really easy running
It’s probably safe to assume that the first thing to jump out at most folks when they read these three pro runner journals is how fast they run—even in the “easy” runs that dominate their schedules. Flanagan reports averaging between 6:40 and 7:10 per mile in these runs, while Ritzenhein hovers close to 6:30 pace and Ward is even faster, at 6:00 to 6:15 per mile.
But these numbers are deceptive. There’s a difference between running fast and running intensely. Exercise scientists place the boundary between low and moderate intensity at the ventilatory threshold (VT), where a runner’s breathing begins to increase at an accelerated rate.
For an elite female runner like Flanagan, this intensity corresponds to a pace of approximately 5:40 per mile, and for elite men like Ritz and Ward it falls just a hair below marathon speed—call it 5:00 per mile. Hence, when Flanagan does her easy runs at 6:40 to 7:10 per mile, she is in fact running easy (i.e., at low intensity), and the same is true of Ritzenhein’s 6:30 miles and Ward’s 6:00-6:15 miles.
Most nonelite runners do a preponderance of their “easy” miles at or slightly above (faster than) the VT, which is to say at moderate intensity—a habit that, according to scientific research, inhibits fitness development. You’ll get more benefit from your training if you take a cue from the pros and do 80 percent of your running at an intensity that is genuinely easy for you. For the elites, this adds up to 80 or more miles—your miles will scale to your current fitness, but you should still not run more than 20 percent of your total volume faster than VT.
If you can’t speak comfortably in full sentences as you run, you are above the VT. If you’re running alone, try singing out loud; you should be able to croon a line or two before pausing for more air.
Lots of things other than running
Lindsay Flanagan’s sample training week includes references to swimming, outdoor elliptical biking, wearing compression boots, strength training, physical therapy, yoga, and self-massage with a roller device. Similarly, Ritz mentions getting chiropractic and myofascial release treatments, PT, massage, strength training, and aqua jogging, and Ward reports wearing compression boots, using a high-tech massage ball, getting massage treatments, strength training, and stretching.
In a word, top marathoners do a lot of stuff besides running for the sake of their running. But does it really make a difference? I think so. In 2017 I spent 13 weeks with the HOKA ONE ONE NAZ Elite team in Flagstaff, AZ, where I did pretty much everything the pros do. At the end of this period, I broke an eight-year-old marathon PB at age 46.
I get it: You barely have enough time for all the running you want to do, let alone all these ancillary activities. But there’s a pretty good chance your running will improve even if you make time for a few of these things by running a bit less, so that your overall time commitment to the pursuit of personal bests remains unchanged.
Going by feel
In their respective journals, Flanagan, Ritzenhein, and Ward make frequent references to how they feel during each run. Elite runners tend to be exceptionally attuned to their bodies. And they don’t merely pay attention to how they feel; they continuously adjust their training based on this information. In describing an easy treadmill run, for example, Jared Ward writes, “I normally don’t go this fast, but I let feel dictate the pace on easy days.”
Whether you’re a professional marathoner or a first-timer or anything in between, getting the most out of your training requires that your body’s feedback have just as much say as your plan in determining how fast, how far, and how often run. As Ritz advises in his piece, “Don’t try and emulate [other people’s] training; learn the principles and patterns, then make it your own by [doing] what works best for your body!”
A fixation on pace
Training by feel is not the same as winging it. The amount of attention given to pace and times is perhaps the single most striking feature of these three training journals. Consider Flanagan’s description of a Wednesday fartlek run: “The 2-minute repeats were more on the controlled side (5:10–5:15 pace), and the 1-minutes were an easy float rather than a jog (6:25–6:35 pace). The average pace for the whole workout combined was 5:40 (including the on and off portions). My last marathon was 2:29.25, which is 5:41 pace. I definitely think I was ready to run faster that day, and my altitude-adjusted marathon effort has been 5:40 for this build up.”
Why this fixation on numbers? Professional marathoners are on a quest to reach the outer limits of their performance capacity, and these limits are defined in terms of time over distance. There is simply no way for any runner to realize his or her full potential without consciously aiming for targets that take him or her a step beyond past limits.
If the common themes of Flanagan’s, Ritzenhein’s, and Ward’s training journals represent a kind of blueprint for effective marathon training, this blueprint is not static. All three runners make it clear that their methods have evolved over time based on lessons they’ve learned and their bodies’ natural maturation and aging. Ritz, who at 36 is relatively long in the tooth for an elite runner, notes in his contribution, “I used to be able to run 120–130 miles a week when I was younger but now I find that one day off a week is something my body needs. It takes 15 miles out of my weekly volume but I have to look at my workouts and know that the quality is there and I don’t need to reach as much for the quantity that I did when I was younger.”
There may be no such thing as perfection, but by emulating the pros and constantly refining your approach through individual trial and error and in response to your body’s changing needs and limits, you can move ever close to perfect in your own marathon training.